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Chronos and Kairos

The Greeks had two understandings of time. One was chronos, the tick tock of clocks that readily comes to mind when we think of the passage of seconds, minutes and hours. Of course, they did not understand what Einstein theorized, namely that even chronological time was bound to one’s position and speed in space, such that chronos slowed as one sped up. But they did understand that certain moments in chronological time were filled with a depth that went beyond the ordinary, a dimension that offered unique opportunity for awareness or accomplishment. This is kairos, defined by Merriam-Webster as a propitious time when conditions are just right for decisive action, the opportune and decisive moment. Etymology of the word points to archery, when release of the arrow would allow it to strike most truly and accurately, and to weaving, when the moment arrived for the shuttle to be sent through the loom. In other words, kairological time means that the time is now.

There is a personal sense of kairos that comes every so often, perhaps triggered by new opportunity, or perhaps new awareness that comes in conjunction with sudden loss or sickness or with great joy. And then there is communal kairos, when factors converge and call us to decisive action, because the moment is now. We are today in such a time.

There are many factors, not the least of which is our destruction of our planet as we know it. Climate change caused by burning fossil fuel is real, it is devastating, and it is increasing. The latest warnings speak of 12 years, a chronological description of approaching disaster that transforms chronos into kairos. A recent illustration in Huffpost showed an earth on fire with the caption: Damn the deficit. The earth is on fire. The Green New Deal is a declaration of direction that invalidates old ways of thinking and shows a way forward. China, massive burner of dirty coal, just announced that it is creating solar farms in space, generating round the clock power that will be sent to earth, clean and consistent.

Meanwhile, the US is heading in the opposite direction. Forgoing the details, which are too depressing to dwell upon, we can simply say: the time is now. The slide into fascism and violence must be stopped. What we are experiencing today can be compared to the great wars and the depression. Overt violence has been unleashed and encouraged. An Alabama newspaper calls for the KKK to ride again, this time into DC, rope in hand. Our hope that we had left racism and sexism behind was painfully premature.

As if all this is not enough to transform chronos into kairos, the poor of the planet stare us in the face. Disparity of wealth, in our country and elsewhere, is an outrage that cannot be endured. The numbers are literally unbelievable. The earth provides, but greed monopolizes the table, a select few taking it all while the many stare and starve. Is it any wonder, with Amazon paying no tax on 11 billion in profit, that “tax the rich” plans are popping up everywhere.

A new election is upon us, none too soon, and new voices, kairological voices, are seizing the moment. Listen to Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Octavio-Cortez, and understand that their voices are not alone. The majority of Americans are sick and tired of dealing with the system as it has continually robbed them of dignity, employment, education and health. This is not a time for bandaids, but a time to change the very system itself. That was Bernie’s voice in the wilderness two years ago, now repeated and amplified not only among politicians but with citizens across the whole country. We may wonder about the actual and potential violence of the alt right mob, but that stain on American society has been exposed for what it is, an infection that will not stand the healing light of day.

With the urgency comes a realization that the old model of gradual improvement and compromise no longer suffices and must be replaced now. Every day a new dire statement comes from the scientists, warning us that catastrophe beyond comprehension will be our fate if we don’t act now. Furthermore we ask, how long can the poor of the world survive on the meagre allotment thrown them by the billionaire ruling class? There is no time for them, other than now.

This moment in history has a precedent, on a much smaller scale but with the same message. The first century in Palestine was also a time of great wealth disparity. From the Romans at the top to the local landowners and priests, it was a system based on oppression of the poor. There was no threat to the planet as there is today, but the threat was real for the people who worked the land and fished the sea. As a hope beyond hope, Jewish society anticipated the coming of a messiah who would set them free from Caesar’s yoke. Into this world, came Jesus of Nazareth.

From secular sources, about all we know of Jesus is that he did in fact exist and had followers. Everything else that can be said or has been said about this man comes from prejudiced sources. The traditional story of birth, death, resurrection and ascension bears no resemblance to actuality, and so we must set that historicity aside. The fact remains, however, that some people were so impacted by the man that their lives were transformed. Not everyone responded to him, but some did, and as we try to understand that event, we must see it as personal and existential. People did not “believe” in Jesus because he performed miracles, or because he commanded an army, or because he “died for their sins”. Jesus did not turn water into wine or walk on water. Instead of armed followers, he was hauled off and crucified as a threat to the empire and denied burial. His followers were terrified and distraught when he was taken away, not thanking God that they had just been saved.

What we do know historically is that the disciples gathered together after the crucifixion and in that moment their fear and sorrow was transformed. They believed, quite simply, that though killed, Jesus was alive. The various myths of an empty tomb and appearances were pointers that they used to explain and understand their experience, not to be taken literally.

The empire had done its best to quiet this man, but could not contain the excitement of the disciples. They believed that he was alive again. That’s just a plain historical fact. Whether they believed rightly or wrongly is not the question. The point is that in their minds the power of evil exhibited in the crucifixion had been overcome by the power of God.

We have become so accustomed to think that the early Christians travelled around trying to convert people because they thought that the end of the world was imminent and people needed to hear and accept the good news that Jesus died for their sins, that we have missed the point.

They were excited and felt a sense of urgency, not because they believed the world was coming to an end, but because they believed that God overcomes evil and that God needs our help in the battle. It was, they thought, our love for each other that moves history. That is what a day laborer from Nazareth had shown. This is not to say that they were blind to the powers of Rome. They accepted that the battle had just begun and would be long. They also believed that love wins.

Then and now, two moments in history, infused with a sense of urgency bursting forth, aware of opposition but not succumbing to fear. This time is our time, and the time is now.

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