Thursday, 22 December 2016

Penance: Spiritual Help for When Things are Ruined…

Last week I posted a bit of a rant over the situation in Aleppo, the situation in Syria in general, and just what felt like the chasm between all of our festive Christmas preparations happening in their light.

I appreciate the feedback I’ve gotten about it, which has been overwhelmingly thoughtful and positive.

Several people have gotten in touch with me, either in comments or private messages, all saying something almost identical:

Jon, thanks so much for this. I too am suffering over what is happening. I feel so alienated from it all, and that’s so frustrating! Please, tell me, what can I do? Apart from giving to the aid agencies you mention and voting responsibly, what can I do?

It’s a serious question, filled with frustrated longing, and it led to a lot of pondering on my part. I really felt that it deserved a carefully-considered response.

The simple and plain answer is that no, beyond making sure aid agencies are staffed and funded, there is nothing we can do.


We need to hold that fact in our hands and hearts, to stare into that abyss, for it is the reason that this is so horrifying.

Not every problem is solvable. 

Sometimes, things are just ruined.

Have you ever had a deep, close relationship, like with a lover, and said something- a joke, an offhand remark, playful banter- only to glance over and see that their face has fallen, that tears are starting to well up, and you instantly realized that your comment cut them to the bone, hit them where they were deepest and weakest? You immediately try to rebuild;

‘Oh my God… I am so very, very sorry. Oh dear God, I’m sorry…’

Wordlessly, they wave you off. They need to cry, to let something die inside of them.

You want to die. You’re flush with fear. You are positively frantic that all might be lost, and all you want to do is fix. Say something. Talk. Make it better. Fix…

But you can’t fix. This isn’t about you. It is about another’s pain- pain you inflicted- and everything is in their hands now…

Take that situation, those emotions, increase them by a power of a million, and you have Syria…

The idea that every disaster, every murderous crisis, can be overcome through the sheer force of our good will and determination- that someone, somewhere has the solution that we can all plug into, get on board with, make happen...

Well, to use King James language, that's vanity...

In some ways, that line of thought is an incredible privilege. Liberal, progressive Americans and Europeans- with our safety pins, our colourful ribbons, our online petitions, our ‘million likes if you agree’, our declarations of ‘not in my name’ and ‘not my President’, our devastating twitter quips, and our boundless enthusiasm- never waver in our certainty that our efforts can solve anything.

But not every problem is solvable.

Sometimes, things are just ruined.

The murderous situation in Syria has been nearly a century in the making:

The carve-up of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War;

the Cold War manoeuvrings of the Americans, British, French, and Soviet Union;

the search for ‘regional stability’ with the help of local (and usually very brutal) despots;

the founding of the state of Israel and the plight of the Palestinians in its wake;

the collapse of the Soviet Union;

the two wars in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan;

the rise and spread of a virulent strain of apocalyptic, militant Muslim theology;

the Arab Spring and the grudging, feckless indifference to it in Washington;

the spectacularly incompetent handling of the Russian invasion of Ukraine;

the equally incompetent handling of the collapse of Libya;
the almost-unbelievably incompetent handling of the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers…

All of that has led us, inexorably, to where we are today.

Pointing out the sheer enormity of the problem, however, is in no way meant to absolve us from blame or give us all a pass to say, ‘well, it’s all above us, and there's nothing we can do.'

Put that notion right out of your head.

But we need to grapple with the full, horrific reality of how long and how much greed, avarice, and power-mongering it took to create a situation like this.

Put simply and bluntly, multiple governments and US administrations have led us here, and now that we’re here, a whole lot of people are going to die.

We are all complicit in this in direct and indirect ways.

Every time we draw clear distinctions between ‘domestic issues’ and ‘foreign policy issues’ and consider the former more important to how we vote and act politically, we bear responsibility for what that distinction will mean for real people all over the world.

Foreign policy issues don’t magically disappear simply because voters choose to prioritize issues closer to home and leave the ‘far-away things’ to the bureaucrats and generals. We will need to bear responsibility for what our governments do, in secret and in the open, around the globe.

That includes who they support, who they undermine, who they sell weapons to, what militaries they train, with whom they conduct business, who they loan money to, who they punish, who they reward, who they assassinate, who they go to war with…

Quick example: Did you know that the US is currently bombing- in some cases, daily- seven countries? Well, it’s true; the US is currently bombing Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Libya… and we haven’t declared war on any of them…

The exasperated cry from the decent-minded citizen erupts, ‘what am I supposed to do about that?! I have no say in that whatsoever!’

If you’ve ever- even once- voted for a ‘pro-life’ candidate, or a candidate who promised to lower your taxes, or who promised to ‘get tough on crime’, or who promised to better fund your schools, and who then votes to give the President or the military enhanced powers to bomb the infrastructure of this or that country to ‘make America safer’, that is on you.

If that representative lobbies hard for the new computer factory in your state that creates 400 new jobs, but that factory develops the guidance systems for the drones that do the bombing, that’s on you.

If those airstrikes kill civilians, which they do almost every day, that’s on you as well.

If that representative votes not to officially accept blame or compensate the victims, that’s on you as well.

If that representative keeps it all ‘classified’, that’s on you as well.

That’s how the system works. It’s how we can so grossly inflict horror on so many, while simultaneously reaping benefits from it at home, and also know very little about any of it.

It’s why candidates will stay laser-focused on the issues ‘you care about’- your money, your schools, your food, your home, your faith…

We have, over decades, built a socio-economic/political system- or allowed it to be built, which is basically the same thing- that neither requires nor desires active, informed engagement from its citizenry. Indeed, from the standpoint of those in power, the less engaged the citizenry, the better the system functions. It’s particularly pronounced in international issues.

The spiritual implications of all this comes down to the heart of the matter:

Modern global capitalism- with its byzantine, labyrinthine, web-like system of subcontracted manufacturers, billionaire financiers, suppliers, transporters, buyers, bases, client states, allies, tacit supporters, ‘black spots’, and classified secrets, spread out across the planet, with none of the players,  perpetrators, or victims ever meeting each other- makes it extremely difficult, if not practically impossible, to do the right thing, to live justly, righteously, with love, respect, or dignity.

We buy food with no thought of the grower. Ethical food costs twice as much and is rarely stocked in major shops. It’s too expensive; no one buys it;

We buy clothes with no thought of the makers. Ethical clothes cost twice as much and are rarely stocked in major retailers;

We consume and throw away. Once it’s in the bin, it’s forgotten. If it ends up poisoning the drinking water of the population of a Pacific island, we’ll never know; our major news outlets won’t report it;

Tactical weapons, bombers, and drones are built in a dozen states at multiple facilities. One makes a switch; another makes a tire; another makes gauges… Nobody actually builds a ‘weapon of mass destruction’; we all do…

We’re vaguely aware that the US has military bases around the world, but we don’t really know how many (662) or in how many countries (38), or what actually happens at any of them;

Is Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre still open? I’ll have to check… Didn’t they talk about closing it? How many prisoners are still there? What did they do? It must have been something; we don’t lock people up for no reason… Do we?

Who are we supporting in Syria? Who are we bombing? Do we want Assad to win? What is our policy position?

That’s globalized, mechanized, corporatized, militarized capitalism…

The world we have built- or allowed to be built in our name- makes it almost impossible to do good.

That is the heart of its evil.

If all this sounds depressing and distressing, believe it or not, that’s actually a good thing.

To feel anger and sadness over the pain of others and for one’s own complicity in it is the divine spark of conscience.

What you’re feeling is guilt- guilt and shame.

These are terms that modern, progressive Christianity has nearly expunged from our spirituality. We’ve done so with good intentions, because of the exploitation of those emotions for spiritual abuse and social control.

But what we’ve ended up with is very often a spiritual condition that is shallow, self-centered, narcissistic, and vaguely psychopathic.

It’s allowed us to ruin things and live comfortable lives, secure in the knowledge that God loves us and nothing’s our fault.

But when we actually become aware that something is terribly wrong, and we might actually have, in some way, had some part in it, we panic. ‘Oh my God, we have to do something? What can I do?!’

Two millennia of Christian spirituality have given us resources to help us when things are ruined:

None of it's fun or pleasant, but it's what you do.

We begin with confession, our moment of clarity, admitting that we have failed and failed utterly, and there is nothing we can do to make it better.

We ask forgiveness. When we ask for real, we know we don’t deserve it and we might not get it, but we beg for it anyway…

It is only when something is ruined that we understand the true weight and value of what we ask for when we ask for forgiveness. It's frightening to realize that there's nothing to do but beg forgiveness- of the God who created life, and of our victims, who grieve its cruel loss…

Then comes penance.

Penance: repentance. External actions in evidence of an internal transformation…

Penance allows us to approach situations of ruin with positivity without any trace of our well-meaning-but ultimately hollow- notions of ‘fixing’. 

Penance is power emerging from a place of utter powerlessness. 

If our penance does any good whatsoever, it is out of the mercy of God, out of his forgiveness, his original creative miracle- life out of formless void and deep darkness…

In the historic context of our part in the ruin of Syria, penance is an act on our part of conscious, spiritual resistance to both the arrogant power that brought about the ruin, the socio-political haze that keeps us indifferent to it.

Practically, it will most likely look like the works of mercy; food for the hungry; clothing for the naked, drink to the thirsty, visitation and advocacy for the imprisoned, care for the ill, and dignified burial for the dead.

It will be aggressive pressure on elected leaders to take serious and concerted action against human rights abuses, indiscriminate targeting of civilians, torture, and murder. 

We must help the refugees. We can also donate to groups that are on the ground:

Catholic Relief Services;

Doctors Without Borders;

Save the Children;

Human Rights Watch;

Amnesty International…

That is our penance.

If we do that, who knows? Perhaps we might be saved...

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