(A post from January 2014)
There a million good reasons to be cynical.
And every day I think about it, looking at the world as I do, seeing something of its messiness, its injustice, its horror, its pain. Why wouldn’t we? Why don’t we?
This morning I met with a group of men (yes, only men!), who meet regularly at the Nairobi Club. Begun a long time ago, with Winston Churchill as a founding member—I saw his signature –it represents just what you might expect of establishment power and influence. The club hosts cricket matches, and the members meet over meals and drinks to make plans for the world, especially Kenya. Unlike its founders, which I am sure were all British and white, everyone in the room was black, except three of us. The other two are men with long and deep commitments to Kenya’s hopes and dreams, and so they belong in the conversation too.
From business to banking, from athletics to safaris, they are an unusual group of people. One man was the clear “lion” of the gathering, the chairman of the board of seemingly countless institutions around the city, from universities to hospitals to banks. Another spends himself for Kenya’s world-class runners, and has formed an organization that exists to facilitate their flourishing as complete human beings, not just the fastest runners in the world. A very diverse group, even if a select group of people who have more influence than most on the way things turn out in Kenya.
I was asked to speak for a bit on the vision of vocation, specially situating it within what we believe about the world and how the world works. Yes, the nexus of faith to vocation to culture. So I talked about a long relationship with a global corporation that is rethinking its fundamental reason for being, seeing that a more complex bottom line is required if there is to be sustained profitability over time. And I talked about John Stott who had a long love for Kenya, and his reading of Jesus’ teaching about salt and light, seeing them as affective commodities, viz. “They affect their environments.” And I talked about Wilberforce and his friends, and their commitment to the reality that the culture is upstream from politics, working for the years of their lives to abolish the slave trade and slavery. And finally I talked about Abraham Kuyper, and the unique way he held together an honest spirituality with serious cultural engagement. They asked me to come back this summer for a longer conversation, and I might.
Cynicism? It lurks around the corner of everyone’s heart. Powerful people in a powerful place– of course it cannot be honest. Everyone’s playing a game of some sort—you just need to see it for what it is. We see through, don’t we? We know, don’t we? If you haven’t already screwed me and the world, you will—and I will not be screwed again! So of course I don’t believe you. Why should I? How could I?
As I was walking in the downtown of Nairobi yesterday afternoon, I stepped into a bookshop, wondering if I could find a good Kenyan novel. What I did see were two of John LeCarre’s novels, The Constant Gardner and Mission Song. I have read most of his work, and see him as a remarkably gifted writer who masters the context and details of his stories. Both of these are set in Africa, one in fact in Nairobi. What is sobering in reading LeCarre is that he knows, he knows so much, seemingly with exhaustive understanding. To say it simply: he knows Africa, and he knows Kenya—so course he is deeply cynical.
We have to have good reasons not to be. The world is too messed up to be cheap about a response, and so our reasons have to be rooted in something solid, something that is transcendent and truthful at the same time. These men I met this morning are hungry for that.