Afghanistan, the Pulpit, and the Myth of Progress

I have little to say about Afghanistan. I was on my summer holiday when the collapse began. The thought of weighing in leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Yes, I’ve found a few longform articles on it all which seem informative and insightful. I could point to the political commentators I think seem to be saying the most sensible things. But this isn’t the place to air my “take” on the situation itself.

Yet, with the fall of Kabul dominating the week’s news, pastors and preachers are wondering how, if at all, they acknowledge the situation from the pulpit this coming Sunday.

The challenge is always the same when global tragedies dominate the news cycle. We feel the need to acknowledge, and even act, in some way – yet what can we do? Our responses often amount to what another writer (very familiar with existing Afghan refugees in the UK) describes as “mere noise”. And we know it. We know that, in a few weeks, we will probably not be saying anything about it.

I have been pondering, then, if we can draw on anything from church history to prepare ourselves to meet this Sunday, and all the Sundays after, any differently. I considered writing on the early church and imprecatory psalms. I considered writing on the early church and persecution. I considered digging into what the Reformers wrote and prayed when news of war and downfall rolled into town. I flicked through Augustine’s City of God.

But everything just felt like gobbets – snippets to adorn a prayer or a sermon, piggybacking on the gravitas of history. Mere piecemeal retrieval.

If we’re to truly remember the world’s tragedies in our ministries, what we need to retrieve isn’t simply what our Christian forebears taught in their ministries. We need to also retrieve their sense of the world which lay behind their ministries – a sense that the world is unstable, violent, and harsh.

We’ve lost that sense of the world, big time. More friends and family than I can count shared the scenes from Kabul airport on social media. More than a few did so with captions asking how such a thing could happen “in this day and age” – a response which hugely echoed the initial reaction to Covid-19. Global pandemics, political collapse, religious violence – things of the past, surely? Human history, we tell ourselves, is ultimately on the upswing. We’re constantly progressing in our scientific knowledge, and similarly progressing as a culture. But John Gray, the atheist philosopher, calls this “the myth of progress“:

In science and technology, progress isn’t a myth. However, the myth is that the progress achieved in science and technology can occur in ethics, politics, or, more simply, civilization. The myth is that the advances made in civilization can be the basis for a continuing, cumulative improvement.

Gray points out that any apparent ethical or civilisational progress can evaporate in an instant (e.g. we abolished torture, but then brought it back in the War on Terror). And he’s quick to point out that even our scientific and technological progress can be lost, as the demise of the Roman Empire teaches us only too well.

We buy into the myth of progress because we in the West live inside the fragile, cushioned bubble of modernity and consumer capitalism. Society, for us, is thought to be fundamentally safe and stable, allowing us the freedom to consume our chosen lifestyle. Sometimes the system wobbles with the occasional recession, and our consumption has to slow down for a while whilst things get back on their feet. But the world then carries on as we are sure it always will. If you doubt me, you simply need to find some video clips of British people mortified that they still can’t go on summer holidays abroad to wherever they like this year.

But these are not the conditions in which most of humanity has lived, or even lives now. They are not the conditions in which most Christian theology has been formulated. They are not the conditions in which most Christian sermons have been preached. Origen was imprisoned in 249AD and tortured for two years straight – just enough to keep him alive, attempting to force him to recant. John Wycliffe carried out his ministry during the Black Death in the mid-1300s. Outbreaks of plague, religious persecution, and the threat of Turkish invasion in Europe punctuated the Reformation era. A British pastor in 1900 did ministry in a country with a 23% infant mortality rate.

Advances in medical technology and the rise of liberal democracy have obviously changed a great deal of that. Yet 2020 and 2021 has exposed just how fragile that change is. A virus laid the modern world low. Western values left Afghanistan with the last American plane out of Kabul. Elsewhere on this site, my colleague Joseph Minich has been exploring how “modernity” is, much like progress, a myth. Despite the changes in science and technology, the world is as uncontrollable as it has ever been. It’s less that we are now modern, more that we simply think of ourselves as modern, as being an obvious improvement on our predecessors. But those thoughts of our inmost hearts have lately been thoroughly scattered.

Christians should be appalled by what we’ve seen this past week. But we should not be shocked. We should know that progress is a myth, and that pointing to the calendar is never an argument for anything. Hadn’t Job made excellent progress before he fell prey to violent men (Job 1:13-15), thieves (1:17), natural disaster (1:18-19), and disease (2:7)? No Christian should be scandalised that these things still happen in 2021. We should be scandalised that they happen because we believe in a holy God.

I suspect that situations like Afghanistan drop out of our prayers and preaching because, ultimately, even we Christians buy the myth of progress. We feel that comfortable consumption is how things should be, and that is what we dismiss our flocks to at the end of each service. The unsolvable desperation of Kabul, which will be much the same months and years from now, does not fit with that. So we pray for it or mention it in a sermon when it catches the media’s eye, and then swiftly forget about it, hoping (assuming?) that such things will eventually catch up with life in the West.

But praying and preaching this way is out of step with the great cloud of witnesses. When we confess “one holy, catholic, and apostolic church”, we’re speaking of countless Christians who have lived, suffered, and died under disease and tyranny – and still do so.

I’ve thought more than anything of the final stanza of one of W.H. Auden’s “Sonnets from China”, which he originally wrote after a trip to China in 1938, to cover the Sino-Japanese war:

Here war is harmless like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking. Dachau.

The “here” in that first line is somewhere removed from the reality of war – the commander’s tent, the classroom, the bench where you check the news on your smartphone. That final stanza has struck me this week – how many of us have truly understood that maps point to places where life is evil? Maps, infographics, news stories – all these things place a barrier between us and the dark reality, despite appearing to be true and accurate representations. If something can be mapped, then surely it must be controlled, understood, safe. But that is the myth of progress right there. Cartography is no better assurance of safety and control than the calendar is.

If we are to do right by tragedies like Afghanistan in our services, in our preaching, in our ministry, then we must pierce the myth of progress whenever possible. If we don’t, then such stories will always feel like unwelcome invasions to our services, and we will sideline them as soon as we can. But if we enter the pulpit and sit in the pew in the knowledge that, despite the world’s technological and scientific progress, wicked and ruthless men flourish the world over like green laurel trees (Ps. 37:35), that the LORD sends lightning bolts on their way (Job. 39:35), and that tonight our very lives could be demanded of us (Lk. 12:20), then such tragedies may not feel so out of place in our ministries.

None of this is to say we become indifferent, or that we shrug and mutter something about the poor always being with us. There should be heartbreak, anger, action. But those should flow out of a deep-seated knowledge of the world’s fragility, not being shocked and offended by it. This knowledge was obvious to our Christian forebears, but is obscured for us by the cotton-wool padding of modernity and the myth of progress. And as long as we’re content to keep that padding, we will never honour this tragedy. Or the next one.


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