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The Grinch that stole Good Government’s Christmas gift


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GOOD GOVERNANCE GIVETH, AND GOOD GOVERNANCE TAKETH AWAY – The unspeakable, unutterable, unfathomable gift was the focus of Christmases past. Maybe as the New Year dawns and the Caravans of Constitutional Republicanism hasten toward the Desert of Nothingness, the Princes of Peace – increasingly growing into the image and likeness of the very Caesars they ousted – might come to realise that the Gospel has bypassed the temple, tower, theatre; and has entered into the byways of a more plebeian Bethlehem. Where, now as of old, the evangel (“Good News and Great Tidings of Glad Joy”) comes with an ethical component (“God must be pleased if the people are to be blessed”)

 

 

We all have selective hearing. For example, a wife may tell her husband: “Go to the supermarket. Lay down the shopping on the kitchen table. Clean and sweep the house. Get the kids after school today. Do something productive instead of just sitting around. Maybe you could finish the rest of the dishes.” But the husband hears only what he wants to hear… “Go … lay down … and … get … some … rest!” We choose the better bits and pieces that suit our worldview, and ignore the context and content of the message.

At Christmas a popular message preached from many pulpits is, “Peace on earth and goodwill to all people.” The full text of the passage reads, “Peace on earth and goodwill to those with whom God is pleased.” That there is an ethical component to the evangel is forgotten in the all too human desire to find favour with whatever supernatural powers as may be. We appropriate the comfort of God with us, but are apathetic to the challenge such a Being might make on us. Sadly we live in times when the earthly powers too are not above ignoring the context and content of the message that the masses are sending out to them. 

“Goodwill to those with whom Good Governance is pleased” is a rather more mundane message. It is increasingly becoming a time, therefore, when the comfortable need to be disturbed as much as the disturbed need to be comforted. It is a time, however, when the most vital parts of the most meaningful messages of Christmas – as much as the gifts of Good Governance – are being misidentified and misappropriated.

 



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The scriptures that are not often heard at Christmas time can come as an epiphany to discerning readers. The heralding of the Good News that would announce liberation from tyranny and bondage is a study in contrasts. Luke, a subversive writer, records the historical and political context in which the gospel began to be shaped and presented. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, his brother Phillip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Rome sat enthroned over the civilised world. Religion was enshrined in holy capitals. Revelation, however, comes to the rude and rough in a far-flung corner of true spirituality far-removed from the centres of worldly power. 

Could it be that the ‘Gospel of Good Governance’ has bypassed the centres of power in republican Sri Lanka today also… and that the message being pounded in the pulpits of our island’s plenipotentiaries is a false evangel: a prosperity gospel with neither grace nor truth? At first blush, the prospect seems absurd. The incumbent administration is neither corrupt nor criminally manipulative as a previous regime! There is amorphous progress being made in shaping a third republican constitution! Good news about growth, development, and progress, are all around us (whether true or false; whether propaganda and hype, or the real state of the nation)! And there is peace for most – even if it comes without the expected justice for all, yet! 

But scratch the surface of the status quo, and the discerning reader will see how the Gospel of Good Governance is in danger of becoming the very beast that once slouched towards Bethlehem to be born and against which it raised its standard a long time ago. The powers that be – past and present, and possibly future – are still immune from prosecution. The people struggle under increasingly oppressive economic burdens. Progress comes at an indeterminate cost to participatory democracy, dissent, and other civil liberties – although this yoke is lighter than former crimes against humanity. And the ‘Johns’ in the wilderness – the prophetic voices that warn against “regime normalisation” and who note that a latent Caesarean dispensation is still popular (in an albeit more liberal, less repressive, avatar) are ignored and neglected.

 



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The original gospel comes with glamour to the grubbiest and grimiest of souls. There were shepherds in the field – those outcastes of Judean society: suspected of every crime from bad morals to bad manners – who reportedly heard the angelic choir hymn of peace on earth. That Herod in his palace missed the clarion call of Heaven makes interesting reading to students of History. The ‘high holy humility’ required of Princes of Peace somehow manages to bypass the high and mighty, scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts. 

Caesar is dead, buried, lying unpraised and unappreciated on the periphery of the true power. (The Rajapaksa machine seeks to resurrect its regime through Machiavellian wiles.) Christ is alive, unburied, resurrected into the abundant life that poverty of spirit brings. (Good Governance has crucified itself on a cross of its own making.) 

That the advent of the lordly goodwill intended for all people everywhere was hailed by herald voices island-wide is a fading memory. A glory has passed from the midnight of destiny, and the Spirit of the Gift has receded like a dream dies at the opening of the day. Good Governance was the present gifted in the past to the grubbiest and the grimiest; but it has no apparent future use now that the shepherds are in the palace, with silken girls bringing sherbet. Annas and Caiaphas may still conspire in some unholy complicity in some distant temple where the faux spirituality from which our isle’s rulers draw their mass appeal resides. 

Pilate, in the person and the work of the magistrates who bow to private pressures in exonerating a once outspoken member of parliament’s brutal assassins, has washed his hands off innocent blood: he asked, jestingly, “What is truth?” – but did not wait for an answer. Caesar has been ousted by the Palace Guard, but the Praetorians who rule in his place bear an uncanny resemblance to their former master and reflect a growing discomfort of the hoi polloi that regime changes only consolidate the antidemocratic authoritarian imperatives the revolution once challenged. The tetrarchs are girding their loins for local government elections that will draw the battle lines for a bigger war of sedition that is yet to come. Only John is still in the wilderness. (Be that as it may!)

 



Revelation

All of the above may reek of religious paraphernalia dressed as political commentary. But all of us have selective hearing, too, as much as our rulers. We are not quick, neither willing nor able to see the political ramifications in the subtext of scripture. If we were willing to subject holy writ to a subversive reading, though, the republican parallels between bygone empires and burgeoning enterprises would be clearer, sharper, a treat to read… Certainly less effete than draft republican constitutions that will consolidate the imperatives of democratic Caesarianism – And more meaningful as a significant essay in the ineluctability of human nature, the inevitability of power’s corrupting influence on people’s corrosive ambitions.

The gift of Good Governance, given with arguably good intentions, has been taken back, taken away, thrown away. The present rulers in the old palace have only subjected the power structures to some trims and streamlining. The usual suspects are at it again, to the detriment of the demographics they represent. Shepherds once in the field, grubby and grimy and guilty of bad morals and bad manners, are now to be seen seated in the places of power and privilege. 

Christmas has become the world’s tallest tree in the world’s smallest island-republic: A tower of fake tolerance and real extravagance. Good Governance has become no less an eyesore on the socio-political landscape; and will be uprooted and cast into the fire of trial and judgment by an electorate grown weary of promises unfulfilled, pretentious posturing, and ostentatious expenditure on its supporters and stakeholders.

May the New Year see a righteous axe laid to the tree. May we all grow less selective in our hearing. May there be peace with justice in our many splendoured isle.


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