These are the times that try people’s souls

The other day, while reflecting on the state of the country, I daydreamed a conversation with Thomas Paine (1737-1809), radical British Enlightenment philosopher and activist for United States independence. This is what Thomas Paine may have said looking at our present age:

“These are the times that try men’s souls”. All right, today I would change my comment: “people’s souls”. After all, I was a man – sorry, person – of my time. That’s how I saw things in those heady days of struggle in what was then called the Thirteen Colonies. 

I can see, Anthony, how my words resonate for you in South Africa today: corruption, mismanagement, the arrogance and apparent impunity of those who govern, the passivity (perhaps even despair) of the governed. Even after your country has moved so far from the kind of tyranny you had and created a constitutional democracy that, on the face of it, is more progressive than we are today, your country still suffers from the gap between the ideals of the founders and the practice of democracy.

Herein lies the challenge: to imagine practical and realistic alternatives. Note my adjectives. Too many people imagine things unattainable or impractical in the short term. Some make promises they cannot keep to delude the people with fine words. Others believe in pipe dreams and in trying to implement them create chaos through fanaticism, leading to greater misery. The wise leader works on achieving the achievable while never abandoning the ideal. It usually makes them unpopular. But they must be supported by all people of goodwill.

The role of religion, you ask? As you know, I had little time for religion, a superstition which distracted people from common sense and seeking solutions in this world, all at the service – knowingly or unknowingly – of the status quo. I know, I know – you tell me things have changed somewhat. Somewhat. I remain sceptical. I suppose my challenge to you and others of faith is to prove me wrong by getting off the fence and standing for what is right and reasonable. At very least, use the teachings of that great man Jesus Christ to challenge the lies of the corrupt, especially those who defame his name more than ever I may have done by wearing him as a cloak covering their sins.

Call them to account. Call them to live Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

And what of the long term, the vision you and I and all reasonable folk can share?

I can only say to you what I said then: “When it can be said by any country in the world, my poor are happy, neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them, my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars, the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive, the rational world is my friend because I am the friend of its happiness. When these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and government. Independence is my happiness, the world is my country and my religion is to do good.”

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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