The spine of the earth

Peter Frankopan has written an astonishing book, THE SILK ROADS (2015). It has been described as ‘history on a grand scale’. His central theme is the flow, each way, along the spine of the greatest land mass on earth, stretching from eastern Asia to western Europe. One of its earliest expressions was the trade in silk but Frankopan goes on to say there were many ‘silk roads’ over the centuries linking the great empires of Persia, India,

China, Greece and Rome. Later, other countries – Portugal, Spain, Britain, France and the United States of America joined in their search for raw materials, especially oil. The roads acted as conduits for trade, culture, religion and linked people for centuries through a string of cities. ‘For the vast majority of people in antiquity’, he writes, ‘horizons were decidedly local with trade and interaction between people being carried out over short distances. Nevertheless the webs of communities wove into each other to create a world that was complex where tastes and ideas were shaped by products, artistic principles and influences thousands of miles apart.’ (p.25).

Looking at this positively, we can see a great urge all over the planet to know about other people; their customs, their inventions and their way of life. At its best, it was a move towards coming together, learning from one another, rising above local frameworks of reference and celebrating the diversity of cultures. If there is a mountain that we climb from different sides, as we get closer to the top, we get closer to one another. Flannery O’Connor wrote a book she entitled EVERYTHING THAT RISES MUST CONVERGE. At our best, we want to be at one with each other. When the United Nations was founded, it struck a chord.

But, of course, there was a dark side as empires fought, triumphed and died. Silk was replaced by furs, slaves, gold, silver, oil and wheat. Much of the book is about the brazen competition between empires and the misery of people as they were trampled on in the greed for riches.

The 521 pages of text (and 94 of footnotes) astonishes as it describes this negative side. American power today is seen as just the latest in a long string of displays of power that is centred on immediate gain at whatever cost. ‘The US’, the author tells us, ‘Was more than happy to provide weapons in large quantities to this dubious ally (Pakistan): Sidewinder missiles, jet fighters, B-57 tactical bombers were just some of the hardware sold with the approval of President Eisenhower. It seemed the necessary price to pay to keep friends in power in this part of the world. Laying the basis for social reform was risky and time-consuming compared to the immediate gains to be made from relying on strong men and the elites that surround them. But the result was the stifling of democracy and the laying down of deep-rooted problems that would fester over time’ (p. 431). The book gives us a dose of hope as we reflect on the inborn urge of people to come together, while tempering that same hope with the realisation that desire for power and wealth continue to frustrate our coming together as one people on one planet.

This week the Church celebrates the Ascension, a symbol of rising. And each year maybe, just maybe, we are also learning slowly, painfully to converge.

May 29, 2022        The Ascension      Acts 1:1-11     Eph 1:17-23    Luke 24:46-53

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