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A Letter from Your Uncle

A Letter from Your Uncle

My Dear Nephew,

I hope this letter finds you well.

I’m enjoying my retirement. Gardening has become very therapeutic.

Congratulations on your recent success! Being elected into such a noble office is a great accomplishment.

Now that you are entering into the halls of power, I have a few reflections to offer. I believe they will assist you in the noble task of subjugating the population. I hope you find them useful. I offer them to you with my deepest affections.

Entertainment in a capitalist society functions as a sort of soothing distraction that simultaneously placates a populace while also generating revenue for corporations. When possible, as much as possible, use entertainment as a means of control. It makes everyone feel better. And happy subjects tend to be the best subjects.

Religion in a capitalist society also functions as a sort of soothing distraction (though it doesn’t offer pleasurable soothing so much as it offers moral soothing). However, it doesn’t generate much profit for corporations. Rather, through the use of moralizing, it names enemies and victims as a way of generating a sort of social capital that can be traded for political power. Some religions work better than others toward this end. But since most in this society are Christian, use Christianity. Be sure to inject enough nationalist mythology to over-ride some of the bits about loving one’s enemy and all of that rubbish. But don’t overdue it. Folks still remember the Nazis too much to entirely replace the Cross with the Eagle.

When the population cannot be effectively managed by entertainment and religion, potential dissent can be slowed and dulled by bureaucracy and complexity. If you don’t want to allow people to aggressively assert themselves, you need to provide a legitimate way for them to passively assert themselves. This gives the illusion that the system can change. And you give them a limited range of options for self-advocacy. This gives the illusion of choice.

When a population cannot be effectively managed by entertainment, religion, or bureaucracy, it becomes necessary to use force. This is tricky. If you use too much force to suppress the people, they will realize they live under a police state and may rebel so strongly that the bonds of entertainment, religion, and bureaucracy shatter. In such a case, they are likely to respond to force with their own force.

On the other hand, you can’t get rid of all elements of force. Just enough violence must be used, preferably on marginalized or outcast elements. This has several benefits.

Firstly, it too functions as a form of distraction; if you carefully administer the threat of violence, it keeps people from recognizing the ways they are being controlled by entertainment, religion, and bureaucracy.

Secondly, the use of violence against despised or marginalized members of society helps more “mainstream” elements feel secure…like honored citizens who maintain their liberties. They will say to themselves “I am a good citizen, unlike those scum.” By believing themselves to be free citizens, they believe themselves to be more valuable to those in power than they actually are.

Thirdly, the use of force is a very natural way to instill fear. People do not like to experience pain or death. The threat of it will keep some docile. And those who feel relatively safe from the threat of sanctioned violence realize, in the back of their mind, that circumstances may change. At some point, if they themselves don’t stay in line, violence may visit them as well. This feeling must remain a mere background thought among the mainstream of society–just enough to serve as a gentle reminder, but never enough to provoke them to action.

I’m always willing to offer you more advice…that is, if you welcome the ramblings of your old uncle. I wouldn’t want to put you out.

Your Uncle,

sam

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On Apathy and Compassion

On Apathy and Compassion

When I was 17 years old, I became the primary caregiver for my dying mother. She had emphysema. Eventually a lung collapsed and she was hospitalized. Only then did she quit smoking.

After school and on weekends, I’d cook meals. I also did the grocery shopping and tried to clean (my mom was a mild hoarder, so my attempts at cleaning usually failed). Every once in a while, we’d get the call that there was a potential donor match for a lunch transplant, and I’d driver her to our small regional airport.

At the time, it didn’t seem that overwhelming.

Eventually, she got the transplant. Shortly thereafter, she moved to the Twin Cities to live with my older sister. She started smoking, secretly, and died. I was at the hospital when she flat-lined. It wasn’t until that moment that all of the suppressed sorrow, anger, confusion came spilling out. And, with it, an unexpected feeling: relief. It was that last feeling that gave way to feelings of regret, guilt, and shame. Pretty much every negative emotion a human being could feel, I felt suddenly. I broke down, alone in a hospital room, next to my dead mother.

It was overwhelming.

* * *

apathyWe live in a broken world. A world filled with suffering–physical, emotional, spiritual. But, usually (at least in this nation) we don’t find it overwhelming. Folks seem unable to feel what experience should lead them to feel. When we see dead bodies on television, shouldn’t we weep? When we hear a child mispronounce “spaghetti” shouldn’t we laugh joyously? When we hear of drone strikes in foreign lands, shouldn’t we rage?

Injustice and suffering happens around us…continually. It is tempting to think that nobody notices. It is like the bumper sticker: “If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention.”

Or perhaps they notice, but feel so overwhelmed that they become numb, crushed under the weight of all that is wrong in the world. Apathy can be a cold and selfish condition, but in our world, perhaps, it is more likely a numb feeling that comes from being overwhelmed. We don’t feel overwhelmed because we have become numb. Apathy is, perhaps, a sane respond to the brokenness that we feel powerless to confront.

We are conditioned to avoid suffering. To avoid pain. To numb ourselves or seek distractions. Ours is a society of endless self-distraction.

This isn’t always how it has been. In most traditional cultures, communities gather together in the face of sorrow. Folks used to hold wakes in their own home. When someone was sick, they were cared for by family and had visitors. When my mother first got sick, I would find boxes of food on our doorstep from strangers. These things are increasingly rare among middle class white folks. Now the sick are put away in a hospital and visited briefly. We hold funerals in bizarrely impersonal funeral parlors. We are removed from our sufferings.

Ours is an apathetic society.

Apathy comes from a Greek word apatheia, which is made up of two words: a meaning “without” and pathos meaning “suffering.” Of this, Dorothee Soelle writes:

Apathy is a form of the inability to suffer. It is understood as a social condition in which people are so dominated by the goal of avoiding suffering that it becomes a goal to avoid human relationships and contacts altogether. In so far as the experiences of suffering, the pathai (Greek for the things that happen to a person, misfortunes) of life are repressed, there is a corresponding disappearance of passion for life and of the strength and intensity of its joys. Without question this ideal bears the imprint of middle-class consciousness.

When things are too overwhelming…we aren’t to be bothered by them. When we see injustice and suffering, we shut down.

When we experience the struggles of others, we can shut down. We veg out in front of a glowing screen. We head out to the bar to drink with buddies who never ask personal questions. We take a nap.

But while these strategies can have their place (because all of these things can be healthy in reasonable measure), what we most need isn’t freedom from the struggles of others, but fullness of life.

If we believe Jesus shows us the way to fullness of life, then we we can see it isn’t found in avoiding struggle and pain. Fullness of life comes from love. It comes when we refuse to let the things around us alienate ourselves from one another. Instead of avoiding struggle, we need to pursue life.

The threat to fullness of life doesn’t come from struggle or suffering or death; it comes from the things in our society that breed apathy. It comes from things that shut down our brains—the myths that tell us that everything is the way it has to be. It comes from the things that distract us but don’t foster anything good in us.

Sometimes, when folks ask me “what does your typical day at the Mennonite Worker look like?” I will jokingly respond: “It looks like sitting in your room avoiding guests and watching Netflix.” It may be an exaggeration, but it is one based in truth. When confronted with the suffering of another, my programmed instinct is to inject myself with mental anesthesia by watching Netflix (or Hulu). But I have never found it reinvigorating. A nap would at least give rest to my body. Reading a book would at least stimulate my mind. Taking a walk would at least recharge both my body and mind. But while solitude can be refreshing, isolation and distraction stifles the soul.

Fullness of life comes from looking at those around us with hearts filled with love…it doesn’t come from avoiding their pain. This is what our brother Jesus taught us. This is why some of the most joyous and loving people in our world are those who embrace broken people as family.

Jesus rejects apathy. Instead, his is a way of compassion. Compassion comes from the Latin word that means “to suffer with.” Compassion rejects apathy and alienation and bridges the distance between persons. Compassion is usually understood, in our society, as a sentiment. We boil it down to warm feelings of pity.

Perhaps this is because our society has so thoroughly inherited the separation of action from intention that we feel sentiment is all that is required to be a loving human being. But in Jesus there is no separation between intention and action. His action reflect his heart, just as his life reflects the very life of God.

Rather than a weak sentiment, or a condescending act of charity, compassion is prophetic. Those with compassion refuse to accept the world as it is and enter into injustice and brokenness. Compassion refuses to accept the alienation and distance between people. It collapses the distances between us. And, in bridging the distance, compassion exposes the principalities and powers and myths that breed alienation and separation.

In his classic work, The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann puts it this way:

Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness…Thus the compassion of Jesus is to be understood not simply as a personal emotional reaction but as a public criticism in which he dares to act upon his concern against the entire numbness of his social context.

This society–our empire–requires numbness. Empires, in their militarism, expect numbness about the human cost of war. Corporate economies expect blindness to the cost in terms of poverty and exploitation. The powerful go to great lengths to keep the numbness intact.

And we go along with this because we’ve bought into the lie that the good life is to avoid not only suffering in ourselves, but the suffering of others.

Jesus penetrates the numbness by his compassion and with his compassion takes the first step by making visible the odd abnormality that had become business as usual.

Thus compassion that might be seen simply as generous goodwill is in fact criticism of the system, forces, and ideologies that produce the hurt. Jesus enters into the hurt and finally comes to embody it.

The way of Jesus is the way of compassion. It involves sharing life with those around us and suffering with them. It confronts the suffering, embraces those who are suffering, and exposes the reason for their suffering.

And so we see throughout the Gospels Jesus embracing those who suffer. Meanwhile he challenges those things that cause apathy: worrying about tomorrow (which distracts us from those in front of us today), love of money (which distracts us from loving God and people), religious legalism (which treats suffering as a just punishment), etc.

Matthew’s gospel tells us that “when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion because they were helpless like sheep with out a shepherd.” People are like that today. We are frightened, even if we can’t feel it. May our response be the way of compassion…to walk with people in their suffering. May we remind people of what is real—love and pain and joy and sorrow—all in full measure without alienating distractions.

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A Litany of Lament

A Litany of Lament

We thank you, O God, for the good things we enjoy in our lives.
But lament that our abundance has brought destitution to sisters and brothers throughout the earth.
We thank you, O God, for the justice proclaimed by your Son Jesus Christ.
But we remember that our world is mired in oppression and violence.
We thank you, O God, for the liberty that is ours by the Holy Spirit.
But we confess that we are easily enslaved by petty pursuits and consumer comforts.
We thank you, O God, for the peace that you promise in the midst of strife.
But we mourn over the ways in which we’ve failed to live as peacemakers.

Behold! a shopping mall on a hill, peddling baubles of bondage and trinkets that entangle.
Fallen, Fallen is Babylon the Great!
May we, like camelhair-clothed prophets, lead people out of captivity.
Come out of Babylon my people!
The American Dream is a poor substitute for the Reign of God.
Come out of Babylon my people!
Consumption and Credit are cruel masters.
Enter the wilderness in prayer and fasting!
Emerge into a world that no longer sees us as its own.
For we are a peculiar people. A nation of priests.
Behold, a mighty citadel built upon a hill of bones!
Bring every mountain low, raise up every valley.
A citadel that imprisons the poor and fetters the affluent.
Babylon’s sins are piled up to heaven. God remembers its crimes.
Her war machine offers salvation to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some may trust in chariots, but we will trust in the Lord.
The Reign of God is in our midst.
Your salvation is near those who revere you!
We long for a world where righteousness dwells.
Where your justice and peace kiss.
A people of Jubilee, a where your Spirit is poured out on all flesh!
Not a nation of Debt whose desires smother your Spirit.
Our consumption crushes those cast upon the altar of capitalism.
Consume us, O God.
Forgive us for our waywardness, O God!
We confess our complicity. Restore us, O God!
Make your dwelling among us, Emmanuel.
And guide our steps along the path of peace.

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A Litany of Resistance

A Litany of Resistance

O Holy Spirit, who at the beginning of creation moved over the face of the waters,
Create us anew with your life-giving power.
O Holy Spirit, who inspired the prophets of old to speak boldly to a stiff-necked generation
Empower us to speak prophetically in our day.
O Holy Spirit, who came as a dove at the Baptism of Jesus,
Strengthen us as the Baptized in our life in the world.
O Holy Spirit, who led Jesus into the wilderness and sustained him during his 40 days of temptation,
Help us to resist the will to power as we follow Christ’s humble path.
O Holy Spirit, who on the day of Pentecost put fire into the lives of the early disciples,
Set us aflame to reveal the Risen Christ in our world.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us.
We have been anointed to proclaim good news to the poor.
The Spirit of the Lord is within us.
We have been sent to proclaim freedom for the imprisoned.
The Spirit of the Lord is among us.
We have been sent to proclaim recovery of sight for the blind.
The Spirit of the Lord is before us.
We have been sent to set the oppressed free.
The Spirit of the Lord is behind us.
For we have been sent to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Spirit of God, empower us.
As we struggle against powers of oppression.
Spirit of God, strengthen us.
As we resist the powers of domination.
Spirit of God, dwell among us.
As we seek wholeness in our lives and in our communities.
Spirit of God, guide us.
As we subvert systems of death.
Spirit of God, send us.
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Breathe into us, Spirit of God
Breathe into our mouths
that we might proclaim the Good News
Breathe into our eyes
that we might see your reign in our midst
Breathe onto our hands
so we can build good things,
and tear down things that destroy
Breathe onto our feet
that we might go wherever you send us
Breathe into our hearts so that all of our seeing and speaking and coming and going will be done in love. Amen.

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