On the Tank Man
(Ezek.37:12-14; Rom.8:8-11; Jn.11:1-45)
‘When you were younger,’ Jesus says to Peter, ‘you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you’re old … someone else will dress you and lead you where you don’t want to go’ (Jn.21:18).
I used to think these words were only for the apostle Peter, but now I know that Jesus is speaking to us all. In our youth, we naively thought we could do whatever we wanted, but right now we know that’s really not true. The future is not our own – we’re in the hands of others.
Thomas Merton often criticised secularism and the secretive military-industrial complex that dominates society. He once wrote that 90% of all news is a combination of pseudo-news, manufactured events and propaganda. All this misinformation means that we live in a kind of pseudo-reality, a universal trance where people can’t see what’s really going on. [i]
He also wrote that there are powerful people in industry, politics and the media who are trying to grab our attention and harness our energies to suit themselves. In the meantime, we’re left struggling, confused or angry and drifting away from the fundamental truth of our existence. [ii]
Merton penned these words long ago, but they’ve lost none of their relevance. Whole nations today are struggling, confused and angry. People cannot work, cannot congregate, and cannot even visit friends. Why? Because a killer virus has reportedly escaped from a bioweapons research laboratory in Wuhan. [iii]
Whatever the truth of this story, it’s clear that things need to change. For too long politicians have played games with us; oligarchs have sought wealth and power rather than the common good; and media-practitioners have been manipulating too many minds.
Where will we put our faith when this pandemic is over?
Throughout history, a few notable people have had the courage, conviction and faith to take a stand against ignorance, injustice and repression. Churchill, Gandhi and Moses are good examples, but above all, so is Jesus Christ.
In 1989, the Tank Man blocked the path of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square. We don’t know his name, but it occurred the day after a student protest was brutally crushed. The famous photo of him challenging such repressive might has become a powerful symbol of peaceful resistance. [iv]
What does all this mean for us? Well, last week’s Gospel of Jesus healing the man born blind reminds us of the spiritual blindness pervading our world today. It reminds us that when hearts are closed, suffering inevitably follows. The good news, however, is that Jesus has the power to heal both visual and spiritual blindness (Jn.9:1-41).
In today’s Gospel, Lazarus is lying lifeless in his tomb when Jesus says, ‘Untie him, let him go free’. Lazarus then emerges into the light, freed from death and released from his bindings to begin again.
In a similar way, Jesus today is saying to you and me, ‘Leave your dark tomb; be free of your bondage and come into the light. Don’t be afraid, but believe in me’.
Jesus uses the word ‘believe’ six times in today’s Gospel. He wants us to seriously believe in him, and to let go of all that binds us, especially those things that confuse and stifle our spirit and hold us back, including our fear, anxiety and anger, but also our selfish ways (Mk.8:35).
People secretly plotted against Jesus before his crucifixion, and it’s no different today. Many still actively oppose all he stands for, and yet, it’s precisely the selfless love of Jesus Christ that the world needs right now.
The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed the emptiness of so much worldly ambition, and so we ask the obvious: What do we really believe in? What will sustain our families and our society into the future? And what are we going to do about it?
Thomas Merton wrote this famous prayer:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I don’t see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end, nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I’m following your will
doesn’t mean that I’m actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I’m doing.
I hope that I’ll never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always, though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen.
It’s time to recognise that our world is going nowhere without Jesus.
Like Lazarus, and Jesus himself at Easter, it’s time to rise again to new life.
Like the Tank Man, it’s time to take a stand.
[i] Merton, T. Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Notre Dame, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1968.
[ii] Merton, T. Confessions of a Guilty Bystander. New York: Doubleday, 1966:84.