It’s the end of the world as we know it. This song – by the band REM – was the most requested on last Wednesday night’s radio show, following the outcome of the American presidential election. The show has a particular theme each night, and last Wednesday’s was how the listeners felt after Mr Trump had been elected. Most of the songs suggested by the audience were unkind to the new President-Elect. Many other comments made in the broad range of the media were bordering on hysteria. ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it’ pretty much summarises the initial reaction of many people around the globe. Many in the UK felt similarly after the Brexit vote, or after the referendum on Scotland’s independence.
It’s the end of the world as we know it. In today’s gospel Jesus told his audience, enchanted by the beauty and splendour of the Jerusalem Temple, that it would be completely destroyed. It was a shocking announcement. Unlike in most contemporary religions that had temples dotted everywhere, the Jewish religion had only one place to make sacrifices and offerings. It was the dearest place to each and every pious Jew. Their whole lives revolved around it, their adult males were obliged to make a pilgrimage to it, and the Old Testament required three visits to be made to it every year. It was so pivotal an institution that the Jews couldn’t imagine losing it. So important was it, in fact, that the threat to destroy the Temple was one of the allegations made against Jesus in the lead-up to his crucifixion. To his audience, Jesus’ announcement was literally the proclamation of the end of the world as they knew it.
What follows in Jesus’ speech was even more astounding. He told them not to treat any natural and man-made disasters as signs of the arrival of doomsday. He warned them against doomsayers claiming any authority to interpret those disasters. Natural and man-made disasters have happened in the past, and will continue to happen in the future. They have been and always will be the end of the world as we know it, but nothing out of the ordinary – in the sense that the world always keeps turning, the lost are mourned for a while before life quickly moves on.
Jesus warns us against falling for the doomsayers’ spell: he says ‘refuse to join them.’ Our time has no shortage of those. Be it same-sex marriage legislation, or Scotland’s independence, or Brexit, or the Presidency of Donald Trump, for example, anything and anybody else can be used as a pretext for extreme ideology: extreme in the predicted consequences, and extreme in the view of the world. Quite often those extreme views are real sources of disaster, as proponents of one side or another try to impose their views on their opponents and upon society. In the gospel Jesus calls his followers to choose a different path: to stick to your values and apply them to your own life even if the price is as high as mockery, denouncement, rejection or even persecution. As long as you apply what you genuinely believe to your choices and decision-making, it can be heroic. The moment you start imposing your views on those who don’t share your values it’s oppression. It may sound controversial in my mouth, but in a multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-national society, law based on particular religious beliefs doesn’t make sense. Many years ago, I heard from my professor of Canon Law that laws describe the minimum requirements of decency. Laws should not force people to heroism. Cultivating a heroic attitude (or sainthood, if you prefer), is a matter for one’s personal abilities and choices.
It’s the end of the world as we know it. All the dramatic changes we have witnessed in our lives, on a personal, individual, local, national or international level, have come and changed our own lives in one way or another. They have shaped us, made an impact on our lives. There are more changes to come, and come they will for certain. That chorus in the song – it’s the end of the world as we know it – has a perverse final line: I feel fine. I wish that you will feel that way too.