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Voices in the wilderness

Sandy desert in Egypt at the sunset

John the Baptist is the archetypal character in this Season of Advent, the season of hope. In our imagery of the story of John, he is in the ‘wilderness’ far from civilisation so that his voice is lost in the desert wind, reaching no-one, having no impact.

In truth, it is not John’s voice and his message of Hope that is lost, it is really the ‘civilisation’ that is spiritually lost and has to be found and reclaimed.

There are many ‘John the Baptists’ in our midst in Trinidad and Tobago and indeed the Caribbean today. They write in the newspapers, and post on Facebook and LinkedIn.

They are journalists and commentators, professionals and ordinary citizens, men and women, elders, and young people. Some speak from the pulpits as bishops and priests, imams, and pundits.

They all speak truth to power, as John did.

They call out our parliamentarians for their poor conduct and their disrespect of each other and the national community.

They call out our leaders for the coarseness of their language.

They urge tolerance and respect and upholding the dignity of public office.

They encourage us to seek the common good.

Their voices may not be heard, not because of the silence of the wind-swept desert, but because their ‘wilderness’ is the cacophony of social media with its fake news and misinformation, the shouting matches of politicians denigrating and ill-speaking each other, and the din of the wailing of mothers at the violent death of yet another of our daughters.

Like John, they experience frustration and anxiety and even the temptation to sink into depression and despair. There is also fear. John’s demise came at the hands of Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas, who was offended by John’s castigation of her immorality, her transgression of Mosaic law, as well as John’s condemnation of Herod’s wicked deeds.

John lost his head, delivered on a platter to Herodias. Speaking truth to power sometimes brings deadly consequences, a fate which journalists are known to meet from time to time.

Though some may not be killed physically, they may suffer character assassination or be ostracised from the circles of power.

It is not easy to swim against the tide. It requires uncommon courage not to ‘go with the flow’ but to say to one’s community and to one’s leaders: ‘You are going in the wrong direction!’.

It is doubly hard when, like John, the direction to which one points requires repentance, discipline, and sacrifice. When the crowds had asked John what they should do, he said: “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.”

To the tax collectors who came to be baptised, he said: “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” And to the soldiers he said: “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages” ( Lk 3:11–14).

Who really wants to do that, and for what reward? Many who heard John would have elected to continue going with the flow.

We need to discern the prophets, the John the Baptists, among us. We need to heed their voices and feel their anguish for the sicknesses in our society and in our politics.

We need to give them words of encouragement as they too experience moments of despair and need our support. We need especially in this time of crisis in our economy and in public health brought on by the pandemic, to seize on the messages of hope offered by them.