Imagine a narrow winding pathway, stretching off into the distance. The sides of the pathway are steep and slippery. On one side of the path is an uneven, marshy bog, on the other a dry, sandy desert. From either it is evidently difficult to escape, once trapped in one or another.
The boggy morass to the one side is ruled by powers hostile to God. These Powers exercise an intrustive level of control in the lives of those who live under their influence. They pursue a range of agendas to which they demand allegiance. They promote these agendas through human institutions and systems.
These institutions are often powerful and far-reaching. They exercise a considerable influence upon the lives of those exposed to them. Many are based upon noble ideas and laudable ideals. These ideals, however, are typically perverted by the ruling powers in order to ensnare and control people. Two groups of stakeholders are particularly influenced by these institutions and systems:
- workers (paid by institutions)
- consumers (consuming the product of institutions).
Both workers and consumers are ultimately required to give allegiance to the institutions and to comply with its agenda.
This principle of compliance with an agenda can be seen operating amongst commercial, religious, political and ideological institutions. Some are openly enslaving human beings. Others do so much more subtly. None, however, are promoting genuine human freedom and human flourishing. I.e., the capacity to fulfil personal destiny, to behave authentically, in community with others. The freedom to act intentionally — “making a conscious choice to make a conscious choice,” as Saint Benedict put it.
The people caught in the bog are thus ruled, directly and indirectly, by the agendas of institutions. Their compliance is ensured by strongholds (“engrained attitudes having a strong hold”) upon their minds and hearts. Strongholds such as complacency, fear, anxiety and oppression.
The morass is named Compliancy.
On the opposite side of the narrow pathway, the desert is also ruled by powers hostile to God. These powers, however, do not control the people there in the same way as those ruling the bog. They seek not to control, but rather to drive. They do not seek allegiance to institutional life. Instead they engender attitudes of aggravation, rebellion and cynicism towards all aspects of institutional life.
The people here are able to see much farther than those in the bog of compliancy. They are readily analytical and can easily identify the faults and problems in the systems and institutions that hold the people in the bog under their sway. Indeed, people in the desert are typically fierce critics of the Institutions. In fact, they are people who, at some time in the past, have identified the deep cynicism that lies at the heart of one or another institution.
Having identified the cynicism at the heart of the institutions, these people can no longer give their allegiance to the perverted agendas promoted via the institutions, by the ruling powers. They have recognised that they must resist the agendas, expose them and challenge regnant and especially hegemonic power structures. In raising legitimate and reasonable concerns, they were, in reality, frequently seeking to bring institutions back to the honourable and just purposes that they were originally founded to serve.
Nevertheless, because of the ruling powers demand for allegiance, those who critique the institutions in this way are swiftly identified and — if they continue to refuse to comply — marginalised, before they can authentically expose the cynicism and perversion of humanity that is at stake. Those treated in this way find that their own criticisms are — and sound — increasingly cynical, as they soon discover themselves to be practically powerless in the face of overwhelming intransigence and wholesale compliancy.
Thus, the critics become victims of the cynical powers and institutions that they have identified. Unable to comply, they continue to resist, but finding themselves marginalised and disempowered, they themselves sink into despondency and hit back with the only weapon left: cynicism. The critics have become cynics; the powers have won.
The process is completed when the marginalised cynics are expelled from the bog, into the desert, where they wander about, attempting to give one another succour through sympathising with and indulging each other‘s cynical critiques. There, they are as lacking in true Freedom as those in the bog of Compliancy.
The desert is named Cynicism.
The Narrow Path
As may be obvious to any experienced observer of life, some of the strongest and most cynical institutions are those of a religious nature. Religious affections are used to promote a strong motivation for compliancy. Equally, they provide a fearful condemnation for those who seek to expose the cynicism. The ultimate weapon of excommunication has historically been wielded by religious powers with a ferocity that pales many political and commercial powers.
Jesus became such a victim of religious powers, powers who were able to dupe powerful politico-military powers into compliantly serving their wicked ends. Yet, before this happened, Jesus provided the ultimate example of following the narrow road that leads to Life…
The narrow path represents a way of walking. A way that is pleasing to Adonai, to God — the God and Father of Jesus. A narrow path that is called righteousness—or better yet, “faithfulness.”
Walking on the path requires a level of discipline. Remaining on the path requires confidence, skill and determination based upon a transformation of the heart and mind. A transformation that enables those walking this road to experience the heart of God and to become led and ruled by his heartbeat.
For much of the time, those who walk on this path do so in privacy and secrecy. They experience varying degrees and seasons of isolation, such that, at times, they are strangely unaware of other journeyers upon the way. During other key periods, however, the journey becomes a shared, public one. For that time, the journey may be called prophetic.
The chief characteristic of those who walk upon this narrow road is the rhythm of hearing, believing, trusting and obeying the Word. The Word is discernible to those upon the pathway, at all times: as a Silent Sound, an Invisible Presence, a Hidden Reality that constantly accompanies and can be seen at work amongst all human communities and especially those lost in the bog and the desert. The Word always bears testimony to the Will of God.
A path of continual resistance
Those who walk upon the Narrow Way must constantly resist the tactical attempts of the powers of Compliancy and Cynicism to defeat them, resisting their efforts to tempt them into either the bog of Compliancy or the desert of Cynicism. Just to go on making progress upon this pathway represents a very significant victory.
Occasionally, the Narrow Path becomes particularly difficult to traverse, becoming rocky or steep or littered with hard obstacles. Sometimes additional responsibilities for the journeyers can take a heavy toll. Wounds inflicted on the way and difficulties endured in the course of progress can mean that the Narrow Road seems to be a much harder choice than either the bog of Compliancy or the desert of Cynicism. This is a Reality which cannot be escaped.
Manifestations of prophetic community
During such times of testing, the communitas of other pilgrim Travellers must be relied upon to assist one another in overcoming the obstacles. Those more experienced lend the voice of experience; those with particular skills, gifts or strengths offer them. This makes possible what would otherwise be impossible for a lone traveller. Group form for a season and gel around their shared experiences of travels, travails and transitions. In time this offers the hope, the possibility of forming an authentic prophetic community — a genuine alternative to Cynicism towards or Compliancy with the Powers.
The followers of Jesus are intended by God to be just such a Prophetic Community, bearing witness to the Word of God and to the Will of God. Historically, “the Church” has more normally settled and become an institution, with its own Agenda. It has fallen into the temptation of forcing Compliancy upon Human Beings and making Cynics out of Critics, before rejecting and ejecting them entirely.
Prophetic communities arising through the united efforts of travellers upon the Narrow Path will always face the temptation towards employing Coercion and Compliancy. The bog is never far away.
Similarly, those who find the cost of the Journey, of travelling on the path of Righteousness, too great, run the risk of becoming Cynical about the Truth. The desert, too is never far away.