The Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka was jointly awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for medicine. Five years ago, Yamanaka and his colleagues at Kyoto University showed how induced pluripotent stem cells could be derived from adult cells and potentially substituted, in research and therapy, for embryonic stem cells.
What the Nobel committee (in its citation and press release) and the major TV channels and newspapers ignored, however, was the fact that Yamanaka moved away from research on embryos on moral grounds, and not merely technical reasons.
It was not too long ago when “hype” about how embryonic stem-cell research would revolutionize medical treatments was rife in the global media. Politicians like Gordon Brown and Barack Obama were adamant that those who opposed such research on moral and religious grounds were obstacles to “progress”. Today those voices seem to have fallen silent. Even when the Vatican and other Christian leaders were encouraging work like what Yamanaka eventually undertook, the media attention was all on the promise of embryonic cells (after all, we have to do something with the thousands of frozen embryos languishing in fertility clinics, don’t we?)
The season of Advent in the Christian calendar brings multiple challenges to our taken-for-granted ways of seeing. Here is a God who catches us by surprise, breaking into peoples’ lives in unexpected and unsettling ways. This is a God who embraces embryonic life, identifies with the weak and vulnerable, and chooses to work through flawed women and men for the redemption of the world. There is also a challenge to fundamentalists: pagan Magi behave like God’ s servants, while the ruler of the Jews behaves like a pagan tyrant.
Not least is the challenge to journalists and the scores of “expert” commentators who are invited by anchormen and chat show hosts to pronounce on global events. Where would the cameras and TV crews have been focused on that first Christmas? Outside Herod’s palace, probably, certainly not in Bethlehem. But Judaea was too much of a political backwater, anyway, for the Roman media to bother.
Most histories of most countries focus on the actions of monarchs, warriors and industrialists. Howard Zinn is uncommon among historians in telling his nation’s story (the United States, in his case) from the perspective of the little people: blacks, poor whites, women, native Indians, common labourers.
“When I taught American history, I ignored the canon of the traditional textbooks, in which the heroic figures were mostly presidents, generals, and industrialists. In those texts, wars were treated as problems in military strategy and not in morality; Christopher Columbus and Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt were treated as heroes in the march of democracy, with not a word from the objects of their violence. I suggested that we approach Columbus and Jackson from the perspective of their victims, that we look at the magnificent feat of the transcontinental railroad from the viewpoint of the Irish and Chinese labourers who, in building it, died by the thousands.” (Howard Zinn, Failure to Quit, 1993)
As for Herod’s murderous rage which left many childless mothers in Bethlehem, only one evangelist records it (with no voluminous commentary) and links it to an ancient lament from an earlier time of national suffering. And a friend’s Christmas newsletter reminds me that Mary’s son was also born with a “death warrant” around his neck. She was warned that a sword would slash through her own heart. Would Mary have accepted her vocation if she had known the consequences for the other mothers of Bethlehem? Nowhere do the biblical writers seek to explain such events. Clearly God is not a Cosmic Utilitarian. There is great evil abroad in the world and most nativity plays sanitize away this dreadful reality. (The most repugnant aspect of Christmas for me is the sentimentalism, not the commercialism).
God has not promised to explain to us every terrible thing that happens. Every attempt to “explain evil” only trivializes it, reduces the horror and irrationality of it. And the trivialization of evil is what is characteristic of the narratives of secular modernity, whether Kantian, Utilitarian, Marxist or Freudian. In the words of Archbishop Rowan Williams, they leave us “linguistically bereaved”, lacking a vocabulary to make sense of our deepest motivations, let alone the deeply threatening elements in our social and cosmic environment. There are aspects of human behaviour that we cannot make sense of, aspects of our selves – and our collective humanity- that cannot be caught in rational schemes.
But parents continue to bring children into this dark world. They assume that existence is fundamentally good, despite the silence of the heavens. And the God Christians trust in is a God who bears the wounds of his world.
Perhaps the biggest challenge that Advent heralds is the revolutionary and “this-worldly” nature of the “salvation” that God promises. Mary exults thus in “God my Saviour”:
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1: 51-53)
Note that the verbs in her song are in what is sometimes called the prophetic aorist tense. So certain is God’s coming reign of justice, that it is spoken of as already having been established.
For whom is judgment Good News? Definitely not for those who profit from the present world order.