Australian apologist JOHN SMITH ponders on how a rail tragedy from yesteryear strangely gives pointers and warnings about the year ahead.

John Smith
John Smith

Time is a strange concept. When I was a child we were taught to write in school by use of a copybook. In those days we used liquid ink and a split-nib pen. It was so easy to spill an unwanted excess blob of ink on the page. The excellent students thought before putting nib to page but others weren't careful to wipe the writing utensil against the ink well. We called this error "blotting your copy book".

The New Year provided a clean new page, a new beginning, an opportunity to avoid a repeat of past mistakes or even miserable failures. In the New Year I believe we need to consider the blotted pages of our society's past failures and consider some robust and constructive alternatives.

In pondering the social blots of contemporary society I came across the following story from many years ago: "Train number 8017 wound its way through Solerno, Italy. The train did not collide with anything, nor was it derailed, burned, or damaged in any way. Yet it brought death to more than any previous rail disaster." What happened? The silent killer was low-grade coal used to fire the locomotives. Shortly after 1.00am the heavy train with 600 passengers entered the Galleria delle Armi tunnel. We are not fully sure of what followed.

When two locomotives pulling the train reached mid-tunnel, the drive wheels appeared to slip. Sand sprayed on the tracks did not restore the traction and the train stopped. All else is speculation as both engineers were snuffed out at the controls. So were 500 passengers. Carbon monoxide was the culprit.

Ironically, authorities discovered the leading locomotive was unbraked with controls set in reverse. The second unbraked engine had its throttle set full speed ahead. The two engineers held opposite views as to strategy. It proved fatal for them and all of those who were subject to their opposing policies.

They were pulling and pushing against each other. It appears that if both had been clear and united about their direction - either forward or backward - all would have survived. But in straining against each other they filled the tunnel with deadly poison.

St Paul spoke of a personal inner conflict whereby a law of sinfulness, selfishness, pride and self-destruction fights against a higher law of life and the spirit causing our lives to become stalemated. In similar vein, social disintegration and death occurs where there is no consensus of justice, truth, morality and spiritual meaning.

I have a great appreciation of diversity and I find cross-cultural experience to be enlightening and exhilarating. But having said that, I am disturbed that so-called pluralism has led us in Western culture to a stalemate on issues of spiritual values, faith and the family.

No society can progress without a unifying principle of belief that directs us towards a clear destination for good. The social indictors in Western countries are of technological advancement but of spiritual asphyxiation and relational disintegration at the same time. I fact the New Year with a measure of apprehension for the nation I love. What will she affirm? We need a unifying belief and politics of meaning and purpose that we might move in the direction of faith, hope and love for this coming year.

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.