In the dream, Clarrie Dunn
sits naked with many thousands
in the muddy trench. He is saying
The true god gives his flesh and blood.
Idols demand yours off you.
– Les Murray, ‘The Muddy Trench’, in Collected Poems (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2006), 554.
In the dream, Clarrie Dunn
sits naked with many thousands
in the muddy trench. He is saying
The true god gives his flesh and blood.
Idols demand yours off you.
– Les Murray, ‘The Muddy Trench’, in Collected Poems (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2006), 554.
So, Leunig on its first casualty:
And some good thoughts here on the costs of war and peace from Laurencia Grant, a cyclist in Alice Springs, published in the Alice Springs News.
“‘Then the reasons that things happen are still hidden, but they are hidden in the mystery of God.’ I can’t read my own writing. No matter. ‘Of course misfortunes have opened the way to blessings you would never have thought to hope for, that you would not have been ready to understand as blessings if they had come to you in your youth, when you were uninjured, innocent. The future always finds us changed.’ So then it is part of the providence of God, as I see it, that blessing or happiness can have very different meanings from one time to another. ‘This is not to say that joy is a compensation for loss, but that each of them, joy and loss, exists in its own right and must be recognized for what it is. Sorrow is very real, and loss feels very final to us. Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvelous. Our experience is fragmentary. Its “parts don’t add up. They don’t even belong in the same calculation. Sometimes it is hard to believe they are all parts of one thing. Nothing makes sense until we understand that experience does not accumulate like money, or memory, or like years and frailties. Instead, it is presented to us by a God who is not under any obligation to the past except in His eternal, freely given constancy.’ Because I don’t mean to suggest that experience is random or accidental, you see. ‘When I say that much the greater part of our existence is unknowable by us because it rests with God, who is unknowable, I acknowledge His grace in allowing us to feel that we know any slightest part of it. Therefore we have no way to reconcile its elements, because they are what we are given out of no necessity at all except God’s grace in sustaining us as creatures we can recognize as ourselves.’ That’s always seemed remarkable to me, that we can do that. That we can’t help but do it. ‘So joy can be joy and sorrow can be sorrow, with neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other.’” – Marilynne Robinson, Lila (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 223–24.
For more on ANZAC Day, you might like to check out some of my other posts.
A guest post by Paul Toms
I recently attended a gathering called Surrender. It gathers around a common Christian faith that calls us to seek justice in our world. The host partners put it on each year, and each of them have their own understanding of what this means and how it is done. A range of denominations, theological positions, cultures, and speakers make up this diverse community. I have a number of friends that have been instrumental in pulling together this unlikely coalition of people and know it is at times a challenge holding these differences together. I’m sure it would be tempting, in our economically-rational society, to reign this in and restrict it to a group that was more ‘on message’, particularly if this voice was willing to bankroll the event, but Surrender has worked hard to keep these differing voices in conversation. In doing so this gathering is a rich, diverse, and passionate meeting of people that, for me, is a unique practical expression of the Body of Christ that I have not experienced in many other expressions of Christian community.
One significant aspect of this expression is the way they take the words of St Paul seriously, that ‘the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable’ (1 Cor 12.22). This is embodied in their commitment, ensuring that many of the voices that are ignored or silenced in our society are heard.
Each year the majority of the people leading sessions over the weekend are on the ground practitioners who are part of small local communities. Room is made for people who are struggling with a range of challenges with their physical and mental health to not only be included in what is happening but are also given opportunities to lead. Stories are shared from communities in the developing world that encourage and challenge my western understandings of faith. And, critically, there is also a significant effort to engage indigenous Australians in respectful ways. This is much more than a tokenistic acknowledgement of country but a commitment to sit at the feet of the elders of this country to learn what it means to be a person of faith in our land. This is done through bible studies led by indigenous elders, a welcome to country which includes responses that last for over an hour (and routinely reduce me to tears), and the Saturday night programme dedicated to hearing from Australia’s first people as they lead us in worship and teaching.
What Surrender is able to achieve with a lot of hard work and persistence is something that I deeply value as both a community development worker as well as a Baptist. It is the creation of an inclusive community that is able to hold together a variety of expressions and ideas. This is not in a narrow, politically-correct ideal but a hard fought practical glimpse of the kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of. I am convinced that it is only when we struggle with the complexities, and at times the pain, of the holding together of differences within groups like this that we are indeed able to ‘have the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2.16).
My invitation to participate in the Body of Christ calls me to discover and express my own gifts within the community but it also requires me to ensure there is space for the unique offerings of my brothers and sisters. This at times requires the relinquishing of my comfort or control to allow those whose voices are often overlooked to be present and heard.
It is when I commit to working with others in this way that I resonate with the sentiments of Douglas Adams’ character, Dirk Gently, when he says, ‘I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere I needed to be’.
For the culturally-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno, the traumas of Auschwitz mean that ‘we can no longer affirm the immutability of truth and the transience of materiality’. It’s not, he insists, a case of an impossibility of distinguishing between eternal truth and temporary appearances (Plato and Hegel showed us how that could be done); it’s just that one cannot do so post-Auschwitz without making a sheer mockery of the fact:
After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims: they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.
It was this conviction too which led Adorno to state famously that ‘the task of art today is to bring chaos into order’, and that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’.
Our emotional responses to horrors of such magnitude ought to outweigh all our attempts to explain them. The line between explanation and intelligibility has been severed. In the wake of such, we are left with the possibility of what Jay Bernstein referred to as Adorno’s ‘negative theodicy’, a kind of theodicy in which the old intellectual and philosophical distance was possible. If we are to make any headway at all in recognizing ‘how the camps succeeded in the destruction of biographical life, and reorientate our thinking in response, Adorno argues, we must learn how to regard Auschwitz as the culmination of a trajectory embedded in the history of western culture in the wake of the Enlightenment. There can be no genuine acknowledgement of the Holocaust that does not begin with the realization that ‘“we did it”, that it was done by people whose lives and culture is so proximate to our own that the attempt to make “them” somehow wildly different from us can be accomplished only by self-deception’.
To go on with business as usual in the aftermath of Auschwitz would be not only an affront to the victims but also ‘to conceal the full extent of our inhumanity and to suppose, absurdly, that we could make amends’. Whatever else we might attempt saying about evil and suffering, we cannot and must not bypass the brute fact that we are responsible. But that responsibility is not, however, Adorno’s final word on the matter. In his book Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, Adorno argues that
The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects – this alone is the task of thought.
Redemption, the ‘messianic light’, exposes the incongruity between the world as it appears now and the world as it might be. And that exposure serves as a judgement upon all forms of institutionalized and ‘normalized’ violence; and, more critically, it serves as a critique of the Enlightenment itself apart from which theodicy would be a largely unsponsored project.
Last Sunday, my daughter and I marched, together with a reported 15,000, in Melbourne’s Palm Sunday Walk for Justice4Refugees. Many thousands of others across the country were doing likewise. For a number of reasons I won’t name here, it was at once emboldening and disheartening.
And over in Perth, Tim Winton offered a great speech. It bears reposting, both in its written and spoken forms:
Palm Sunday commemorates the day an itinerant prophet spoke truth to power. Jesus of Nazareth arrived at the gates of Jerusalem in a parody of imperial pomp. But he was a nobody. Instead of a stallion, he rode up on a borrowed donkey. In place of an army, he had a bunch of lily-livered misfits throwing down their cloaks and palm branches as if he was a big shot. Street theatre, if you like. And a week later he was dead. He was there to challenge the commonsense of the day. Armed with only an idea.
Jesus used to say things like this. If a child asks you for bread, will you give him a stone? Awkward things like that.
His followers called his idea The Way. Many of us are here today because the idea has stuck. We try to follow the Way of Peace and Love. Just another bunch of lily-livered misfits.
For generations, in communities all over the globe, Palm Sunday has been a day when people walk for peace and reconciliation. And not just Christians. People of every faith and of no faith at all come together as we have today in solidarity. To express our communal values and yearnings, the things that bind us rather than those that separate us.
We belong to a prosperous country, a place where prosperity and good fortune have made us powerful. Yes, whether we feel it or not, we are exceptionally powerful as individuals and as a community. We have the power of safety. We’re richer, more mobile, with more choices than most of our fellow citizens worldwide. Not because we’re virtuous, but because we’re lucky. But we don’t come here to gloat. We’re here to reflect. To hold ourselves to account. We didn’t come here today to celebrate power or to hide in its privileged shadow. We’re here to speak for the powerless. We’re not here to praise the conventions of the day, but to examine them and expose them to the truth. We’re not here to reinforce the status quo. We gather to dissent from it. To register our dismay at it. We’re here to call a spade a spade, to declare that what has become political common sense in Australia over the past 15 years is actually nonsense. And not just harmless nonsense; it’s vicious, despicable nonsense. For something foul is festering in the heart of our community, something shameful and rotten.
It’s a secret we don’t want to acknowledge. We hide it from ourselves. At times, it seems we’re content to have others hide it from us and for us. But we hide this dark secret at great cost. To faceless strangers. To innocent people. To powerless children. We hide this dirty secret at a terrible cost to ourselves as individuals and as a community.
What secret are we hiding? Well, it’s awkward, and kind of embarrassing. You see, we’re afraid. Terrified. This big, brash wealthy country. We have an irrational phobia. We’re afraid of strangers. Not rich strangers. No. The ones who frighten us out of our wits are the poor strangers. People displaced by war and persecution. We’re even scared of their traumatised children. And if they flee their war-torn countries in boats, well, then, they’re twice as threatening. They send us into wild-eyed conniptions. As if they’re armed invaders. But these people arrive with nothing but the sweat on their backs and a crying need for safe refuge. Yet, they terrify us. So great and so wild is our fear, we can no longer see them as people, as fellow humans. First, we criminalised them. Then, we turned them into faceless objects. Cattle. Well, maybe that’s not quite right. You see we’re sentimental about cattle. Especially cattle on boats. We have values, you see, standards of decency. We hate to see suffering. We’re moved to pity.
But for someone seeking asylum, someone arriving by boat, this special species of creature called a “boat person”, the pity isn’t there. Pity is forbidden. All the usual standards are overturned. Their legal right to seek asylum is denied. They’re vilified as “illegals”. And their suffering is denied. As if they’re not our brothers and sisters. Yes, we hate suffering. But apparently their kind of suffering is no longer legitimate. And therefore, it’s no longer our problem. Our moral and legal obligations to help them are null and void.
Since August 2001, Australians have gradually let themselves be convinced that asylum seekers have brought their suffering and persecution and homelessness and poverty on themselves. Our leaders have taught us we need to harden our hearts against them. And how obedient we’ve been, how compliant we are, this free-thinking, high-minded egalitarian people.
We’re afraid. But the government has made them go away. They have stopped the boats. And spirited the victims away. Now, we don’t have to see their suffering. In fact, we’re not allowed to see it. They’re out of sight, and out of mind. And here at home, all is well, all is calm again. For the past few years, as traumatised people have fled towards safety, towards what they believed was a civilised and compassionate haven, our national peace of mind has been built upon the hidden, silent suffering of others.
And that, my friends, is what our elected representatives have done. Using the military, using warships. Using spin and deception in Parliament. Shielding its deeds from media scrutiny. With the collusion of our poorer neighbours, the client states of Nauru and PNG. The political slogans have ground their way into our hearts and minds. The mantras of fear have been internalised. We can sleep at night because these creatures are gone. It wasn’t enough to turn these people away. We had to make them disappear.
So. All is well. Nothing to be afraid of any more. Until we find other poor people to be afraid of. Folks who are here already. Australians who are poor and powerless and, therefore, somehow troublesome, embarrassing, even dangerous. Because that’s the thing. Once you start the cycle of fear, there’s always someone new and different to be afraid of, some new group to crack down on.
But will we ever sleep easy? I wonder. Because there’ll always be the creeping suspicion that some poor person could be white-anting our prosperity, our privilege, our Australian specialness. Or maybe we won’t sleep because, deep in the back of our heads, somewhere in our spirit, we’ll feel a flicker of shame, a twinge of conscience. Maybe I caught a glimpse of a child’s face behind the wire. For a second, I saw a resemblance. Could have been my kid, my grandkid, the little girl next door. Just a kid. A face behind the wire.
My friends, we weren’t always this scared. We used to be better than this. I remember because I was a young man when we opened our arms and hearts to tens of thousands of Vietnamese. Australians were poorer then, more awkward, less well travelled as a people. And yet, we took pity on suffering humans. No cages, no secret gulags. We had these people in our homes and hostels and halls and community centres. They became our neighbours, our schoolmates, our colleagues at work. I was proud of my country, then, proud of the man who made it happen, Malcolm Fraser, whose greatness shames those who’ve followed him in the job. Those were the days when a leader drew the people up and asked the best of them and despite their misgivings, Australians rose to the challenge. And I want to honour his memory today.
It breaks my heart to say it, but fear has turned us. In the past 15 years, it’s eaten into our public spirit and made a travesty of our most sacred values, the very things we thought we stood for as a society: our sense of decency, fairness, justice, compassion, openness. In our own time, we have seen what is plainly wrong, what is demonstrably immoral, celebrated as not simply pragmatic but right and fair. It’s no accident that both mainstream political parties have pursued asylum seeker policies based on cruelty and secrecy. First, pandering to irrational public fear and then at the mercy of it. Because these policies are popular. I don’t deny it. It hurts me to acknowledge it. But it’s a fact. A hard-hearted response to the suffering of others has calcified and become the common sense of our day.
We used to be better than this. I still believe we’re better than this.
So what’s happened to this country? I’m confused. I read the news. But as events unfold, I don’t always recognise my own people. This still looks like the country I was brought up in but it doesn’t always feel like it. You think mining royalties have had a dip? Well, spare a thought for the Fair Go. Because that currency has taken a flogging. There’s a punitive spirit abroad, something closer to Victorian England than the modern, secular, egalitarian country I love.
In the days of Charles Dickens, child labour was acceptable, respectable. It was common sense. So was the routine degradation of impoverished women. Charity was punitive. Until Victorian reformers like Dickens exposed the common sense of his era as brutal nonsense, the suffering of children was inconsequential. The poor were human garbage. They were fuel. Victorian England extracted energy and sexual pleasure from the faceless bodies of the poor. When they became a nuisance, they were exported, “offshored”. In chains. Some of these faceless, degraded people were our ancestors. Mine was an unaccompanied minor, a little boy. A boy consigned to oblivion. A boy without a face. I’ve been thinking of him lately. Public events have made it unavoidable.
And yet from this brutish convention, this hellish common sense, we made something new here in this country, something better. Where Jack was as good as his master. We turned away from the callous feudalism of the Old World and made this place a haven for decency. We granted everyone a face. Some, to our shame, later than others.
The face is the window of the soul. It’s the means by which we make ourselves known. To those of us of religious faith, it’s the means by which we recognise the Divine spark in each other, the presence of God. To those who aren’t religious, it’s the way we apprehend the sacred dignity of the individual. We present ourselves to one another face-to-face, as equals. When you rob someone of their face, of their humanity, you render them an object.
In this country, a nation built upon people fleeing brutes and brutality for 200 years, we have a tradition of fairness and decency and openness of which we’re rightly proud. Whether we’re inspired by the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan, the universal dignity of humankind, or the sanctity of the individual, we’ve always thought it low and cowardly to avert our gaze from someone in trouble or need, to turn our face from them as though they did not exist. When I was a kid, there were a few salty names for people like that. You didn’t want to be called out as one of those. That’s where our tradition of mateship comes from. Not from closing ranks against the outsider, but from lifting someone else up, helping them out, resisting the cowardly urge to walk by. It distinguished this country from the feudalism and patronage of the Old World. When the first boat people arrived in the late ’70s, we looked into their traumatised faces on the TV and took pity despite our misgivings.
Now, of course, we don’t see faces. And that’s no accident. The government hides them from us. In case we feel the pity that’s only natural. Asylum seekers are rendered as objects, creatures, cargo, contraband, and criminals. And so, quite deliberately, the old common sense of human decency is supplanted by a new consensus. Built on hidden suffering, maintained by secrecy. Cordoned at every turn by institutional deception. This, my friends, is the new common sense. According to this new dispensation, Australia does not belong to the wider world. We’re nobody’s fool. We have no obligations to our fellow suffering humans. Unless it suits us. Because we are exceptional. And beyond reproach. It seems we are set to distinguish ourselves by our callousness, by our unwavering hardness of heart. We will not be lectured to by outsiders. Or, come to think of it, by insiders, either. Not about human rights, not about torture, not about the incarceration of children. We will bully critics and whistleblowers into silence. We will smear them. We will shirtfront them.
Which is to say that we live now as hostages to our lowest fears. But to assent to this newly manufactured common sense is to surrender things that are sacred: our human decency, our moral right, our self-respect, our inner peace. To passively assent to this is to set out together on a road that leads to horrors, a path from which we must turn back before we lose our way entirely.
To those in power who say they’re exiling and caging children for their own good, I say we’ve heard that nonsense before. So, don’t do it in my name.
To those who say they’re prolonging misery to save life, I say I’ve heard that nonsense before. You don’t speak for me; I don’t recognise your perverse accountancy.
To those in power who say the means will justify the end, I say I’ve heard that nonsense before. It’s the tyrant’s lie. Don’t you dare utter it in my name.
To those who say this matter is resolved, I say no. For pity’s sake, no. For the love of God, no. A settlement built on suffering will never be settled. An economy built on cruelty is a swindle. A sense of comfort built upon the crushed spirits of children is but a delusion that feeds ghosts and unleashes fresh terrors.
If current refugee policy is common sense, then I refuse to accept it. I dissent. And many of my countrymen and women dissent alongside me. I don’t pretend to have a geopolitical answer to the worldwide problem of asylum seekers. Fifty million people are currently displaced by war and famine and persecution. I don’t envy those who make the decisions in these matters, those who’ve sought and gained the power to make decisions in this matter. I’m no expert, no politician. But I know when something’s wrong. And what my country is doing is wrong.
Prime Minister, forget the boats for a moment. Turn back your heart. Turn back from this path to brutality. Turn back from piling trauma upon the traumatised. Because it shames us. It grinds innocent people to despair and self-harm and suicide. It ruins the lives of children. Give these people back their faces, their humanity. Don’t avert your gaze and don’t hide them from us.
Because the secret won’t hold. It’s out already. There are witnesses. There will be testimony. We will remember. In another time, and very soon, I think, our common sense will be nonsense. And you’ll have to ask yourself, was it worth it? This false piece of mind, this stopping of the boats. Was it worth the price paid in human suffering? You’re not alone; the rest of us will have to face it, too.
Jesus said: “What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world only to lose his soul?” And I wonder: What does it profit a people to do likewise, to shun the weak and punish the oppressed, to cage children, and make criminals out of refugees? What about our soul as a people?
We’re losing our way. We have hardened our hearts. I fear we have devalued the currency of mercy. Children have asked for bread and we gave them stones. So turn back. I beg you. For the children’s sake. For the sake of this nation’s spirit. Raise us back up to our best selves. Turn back while there’s still time.
This day in the church calendar marks The Feast of the Annunciation – the church’s answer to those who refute the humanity of God. It might strike one as a little odd that this ‘feast’ and its attendant Gospel reading (Luke 1.26–38) should appear in the final week of Lent. But there is, it seems to me, a deep connection at work here.
I was reminded of this in two ways yesterday. The first was reading a couple of brief reflections by Joan Chittister:
Mary was not used … Mary was asked a question to which she had the right to say no. Mary was made a participant in the initiatives of God … She was made an equal partner in the process. (In Search of Belief, 98).
The feast of the Annunciation [is] the moment when doing the will of God brought Mary into total solitude, outside the understanding of her society, beyond the support of her family. It is the practice of solitude that enables us to stand alone in life against the ruthless tide. Simone Weil wrote, ‘Absolute attention is prayer’. Have you known the solitude that brings absolute attention to the thought of God? Then you have known the Annunciation. (The Radical Christian Life: A Year with Saint Benedict, 32)
‘Absolute attention’. What a wonderful invitation to engage Lent!
It is possible, of course, as Chittister observes elsewhere, and as many artworks encourage, to allow the word ‘annunciation’ to conjure up less exhausting, less cataclysmic images. But ‘this, after all, was no routine summons. This was an earth-shattering, life-changing, revolutionary call. This was what happens when life is completely turned around, when the house burns down or the job disappears or the stock market crashes’. If most of the images of divine encounter that we carry are too passive, too gentle, too quiet, too lacking in interruption, too hyper-predestinarian, too naïve about the kinds of material which with God chooses to work, then the problem lies not with the word ‘annunciation’ but with us and our romanticized and sanitized – and let’s just name it, docetic or nestorian! – readings of the Gospel narrative.
And this leads me to the second gift that aided my seeing this week; namely, happening across Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Weary in Well-doing’ (1864), words that bear witness to a different manner of gentleness, work, and rest:
I would have gone; God bade me stay:
I would have worked; God bade me rest.
He broke my will from day to day,
He read my yearnings unexpressed
And said them nay.
Now I would stay; God bids me go:
Now I would rest; God bids me work.
He breaks my heart tossed to and fro,
My soul is wrung with doubts that lurk
And vex it so.
I go, Lord, where thou sendest me;
Day after day I plod and moil:
But, Christ my God, when will it be
That I may let alone my toil
And rest with Thee?
I reflected more on these things as I put together a little video presentation of images depicting the Annunciation, set to J. S. Bach’s ‘Himmelskönig, sei willkommen’ (King of Heaven, welcome), BWV 182. The piece was first performed on The Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 1714. I now share it with you.
The Bible makes no effort at all to shy away from the tragic. From the story of creation’s genesis against the backdrop of primordial chaos to the seemingly-indiscriminate annihilation of life caused by a global flood, from the narratives of the primal couple’s decline into deathliness to the violent end of their son Abel, from the anamnesis of Job to Abraham’s near infanticide of Isaac, from the promise of a nation’s birth out of Sarah’s barren womb to Israel’s brutal creation from the bowels of cruel bondage in Egypt, from the violence that marked the retelling of Israel’s establishment in Canaan and their disestablishment at the time of the Babylonian exile to their life in Roman-occupied Palestine, from the murder of Israel’s prophets to the suicide of guilt-ridden Judas, from the despairing poetry of the psalmists and prophets to Herod’s most unpoetic massacre of the innocents, from the state-sanctioned murder of a blameless Christ to the cries of faithful martyrs hiding under the altar desperate for their blood to be avenged ‘on the inhabitants of the earth’ (Rev 6.10), the Bible’s narratives are inextricably and unavoidably bound up with suffering and faith and evil and death.
And its pages, rich in tragic tropes, offer no univocal attitude to suffering and evil (see, for example, the massive – nearly 900 pages! – volume edited by Antti Laato and Johannes C. de Moor, Theodicy in the World of the Bible: The Goodness of God and the Problem of Evil (Brill, 2003), nor consensus about their causes and purposes. Indeed, the various authors and redactors of its texts betray a smorgasbord of theologies and interpretations on this subject, as on most others.
While many modern believers seem to conclude that the greatest threat to life lies in sin, the Bible suggests that one of the most enduring threats to life is entirely out of our hands. It is the threat of the sea, the home of the great leviathan, and the perpetual menace of abyss that exists, as it were, on the edges of all that we can know and gain some semblance of control over. The Jews, a land-based people, were terrified by the sea, avoided travelling on it at all costs, especially if it meant sailing out of land’s sight. And they were mesmerised by the thought that anyone – let alone an unregistered rabbi with some shady character references – might be able to calm the chaos with mere speech. The promise in Revelation 21 of a new heaven and new earth bereft of sea is indeed good news for those who see in the sea abysmal and godless chaos threatening all that is good in God’s creation. I must confess, however, that being a fisherman I find the thought of a sea-less new creation to be gravely depressing, and any consideration that such a vision may represent a failure of creation’s God to bring into shalom all that God has made is to me an impasse beyond words. But then I wasn’t living on the coast of Japan on 11 March 2011 when a tsunami claimed the lives of nearly 16,000 people.
Part of the creation once described as ‘very good’ (Gen 1.31) – the seas and the ‘swarms of living creatures’ (Gen 1.20) in them – are, plainly, at least according to the account in Genesis, Elohim’s work. And ‘a wind (or breath or spirit) from Elohim’ (Gen 1.2) sweeps over them. Is this to hold back the mysterious threat, and to remind an ancient people that even the source of their greatest fears exists under the sovereign governance of God? Of course, God can also unleash this threat. Noah’s neighbours knew that, as did an Egyptian army in pursuit of slaves. And then there’s that extraordinary vision in Daniel 7, a passage very influential in early Christianity, a vision of ‘the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts [coming] up out of the sea’ to make war upon God’s people. Here, the sea has become again the dark, formidable, and belligerent place from which evil emerges, threatening the destruction of Yahweh’s covenant people as a tidal wave threatens those who live near the coast.
There is indeed mystery here – the ‘earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 24.1) and ‘the whole world lies in the power of the evil one’ (1 Jn 5.19) – and responsible theology proceeds in awareness of this antithetical texture of the Bible’s witness, finding there both the revelation of good and the enduring mystery of evil, and resisting there the temptation to iron out the rough sections or to reconcile them into an easy whole free of paradox. It is that which corresponds in some way to the three-day journey of Golgotha, Holy Saturday, and Easter.
We live ‘betwixt and between’. Our experience of this world, as Scripture testifies, is one marked by ambiguity, by inconsistency, by lives lived well and lives lived poorly in what the philosopher Gillian Rose famously referred to as ‘the broken middle’. We are ‘lost’, like Dante, ‘in a dark wood’ of sin, and waiting for grace. We live, as George Steiner puts it in his remarkable book Real Presences, in ‘the longest of days’, on Holy Saturday – in the space between the memory, trauma, and despair of Good Friday, and the expectant hope of Easter. So Kevin Taylor and Giles Waller: ‘The experience is neither one of nihilism, nor one of bland optimism. It is one in which we learn the difference between optimism and hope, in which we are only able to hope for the best by confronting the worst. As [Thomas] Hardy enjoined, “Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst” (‘In Tenebris II’)’.
[Image: Pete Cramblit, ‘Cain slaying Abel’]
One wonders what will become of a society in which certain forms of suffering are avoided gratuitously, in keeping with middle-class ideals. I have in mind a society in which: a marriage that is perceived as unbearable quickly and smoothly ends in divorce; after divorce no scars remain; relationships between generations are dissolved as quickly as possible, without a struggle, without a trace; periods of mourning are ‘sensibly’ short; with haste the handicapped and sick are removed from the house and the dead from the mind. If changing marriage partners happens as readily as trading in an old car on a new one, then the experiences that one had in the unsuccessful relationship remain unproductive. From suffering nothing is learned and nothing is to be learned.
Such blindness is possible in a society in which a banal optimism prevails, in which it is self-evident that suffering doesn’t occur. It is part of this self-evident societal apathy that the suffering workers experience is not public, that the problems workers have do not attain the level of public awareness their frequency warrants. Then an inability to perceive suffering develops, not only one’s own, through indifference, but especially the suffering of others. The apathy that exists over against the Third World is to be attributed not only to manipulation by the mass media, which can latch on to the prevailing fear of communism and a latent approval of the exploitation of these ‘lazy’ countries. It is also to be seen as part of middle-class apathy in general, which does not even perceive its own pains.
People stand before suffering like those who are color-blind, incapable of perception and without any sensibility. The consequence of this suffering-free state of well-being is that people’s lives become frozen solid. Nothing threatens any longer, nothing grows any longer, with the characteristic pains that all growth involves, nothing changes. The painless satisfaction of many needs guarantees the attainment of a quiet stagnation. Boredom spreads if the attainment of that for which one hoped no longer drives one on to a newer, greater hope. Swedish socialism, a pragmatic kind of social system without a utopian vision impelling it on, represents a state of built-in freedom from suffering, which nevertheless produces the highest suicide rate in the world.
In the equilibrium of a suffering-free state the life curve flattens out completely so that even joy and happiness can no longer be experienced intensely. But more important than this consequence of apathy is the desensitization that freedom from suffering involves, the inability to perceive reality. Freedom from suffering is nothing other than a blindness that does not perceive suffering. It is the no longer perceived numbness to suffering. Then the person and his circumstances are accepted as natural, which even on the technological level signifies nothing but blind worship of the status-quo: no disruptions, no involvement, no sweat.
Then walls are erected between the experiencing subject I and reality. One learns about the suffering of others only indirectly – one sees starving children on TV – and this kind of relationship to the suffering of others is characteristic of our entire perception. We seldom experience even the suffering and death of friends and relatives physically and directly. We no longer hear the death rattle and the moaning. We no longer touch the warmth and coldness of the sick body. The person who seeks this kind of freedom from suffering quarantines himself in a germ free location where dirt and bacteria cannot touch him, where he is by himself, even if this ‘by himself’ includes a little family. The desire to remain free from suffering, the retreat into apathy, can be a kind of fear of contact. One doesn’t want to be touched, infected, defiled, drawn in. One remains aloof to the greatest possible extent, concerns himself with his own affairs, isolates himself to the point of dull-wittedness.
This semester, I’m teaching a course titled Suffering, Faith, and Theodicy. One of the real challenges in teaching such a course to those of us who live in the so-called first world is the profound levels of apathy that exist towards the depths and breadth of suffering and evil in our world. Where such is acknowledged, it is often passed off, as Douglas John Hall observes, as ‘a consequence of human ignorance, indecisiveness, superstition, and lack of scientific knowledge, intuitive or resourcefulness’. For those of us who have invested most deeply in the modernity project, however, this logic becomes more difficult to maintain, particularly when we are talking about some of the most intellectually- and industrially-sophisticated societies in the world (e.g., Germany and Japan who are collectively responsible for the deaths of about 48 million people between 1939 and 1945, or the United States whose <5% of the world’s population owns roughly 35–50% of the world’s civilian-owned guns by which, on average, 32 people are murdered each day (67% of all homicides involve a gun), 8 of whom are under the age of 20), or when evil comes to visit our homes, or our bodies. Public apathy characterises my own country, Australia, too on a host of levels; most obviously in regard to Aboriginal Australians, asylum seekers, respect for the environment, and high abortion and increasingly-high incarceration rates, to name a few areas where the levels of publicly-available information is horribly unmatched by the levels of public concern, let alone levels of real shared pathos.
Recently, I watched Alain de Botton’s Wheeler Centre presentation on news, and was particularly struck by his comments on the important work undertaken by photojournalists. All of this got me thinking about some work by great American essayist and cultural theorist Susan Sontag who rails against those she refers to as ‘citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk’ who ‘will do anything to keep themselves from being moved’. Mass media, she argues, absurdly converts news into entertainment, and wrongly assumes that everyone is a mere spectator, a consumer of news, and a patronizer of reality, the fruit of which is to make us apathetic.
In her remarkable book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag draws our attention to the way that
Certain photographs – emblems of suffering, such as the snapshot of the little boy in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, his hands raised, being herded to the transport to a death camp – can be used like memento mori, as objects of contemplation to deepen one’s sense of reality; as secular icons, if you will. But that would seem to demand the equivalent of a sacred or meditative space in which to look at them. Space reserved for being serious is hard to come by in a modern society, whose chief model of a public space is the mega-store (which may also be an airport or a museum).
At the other extreme, while many have argued that it is incumbent upon human persons and societies to avail themselves of every moral measure available to us to resist evil and suffering in all its forms, the fact is that sometimes there can be an apotheosis, a glorification, of acceptance of these realities. So Sontag describes ours as ‘an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering – rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer’s words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr’.
And yet, we are unsure – understandably perhaps – of what to make of suffering in itself, and the bombardment of photographic images, for example, has not helped us to better engage with the problem in suffering in ways that are more true to the deepest truths of being human.
In a no less remarkable book, On Photography, Sontag argued that ‘images anesthetize’, that ‘photographed images of suffering’ can corrupt the ‘conscience and the ability to be compassionate’ by making tragic events seem less real. She writes: ‘At the time of the first photographs of the Nazi camps, there was nothing banal about these images. After 30 years, a saturation point may have been reached. In these last decades, “concerned” photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it’.
Sontag reviews this position in her final book, Regarding the Pain of Others, wherein she offers an analysis of our numbed response to images of horror. She is concerned throughout to challenge our preconceptions about and responses to the nature of war, and the limits of our sympathy, and the obligations of our conscience. Here, she writes that she is ‘not so sure’ that ‘photographs have a diminishing impact’, arguing that ‘people don’t become inured to what they are shown – if that’s the right way to describe what happens – because of the quantity of images dumped on them’. She continues:
Flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation, we are losing our capacity to react. Compassion, stretched to its limits, is going numb. So runs the familiar diagnosis. But what is really being asked for here? That images of carnage be cut back to, say, once a week? … There isn’t going to be an ecology of images. No Committee of Guardians is going to ration horror, to keep fresh its ability to shock. And the horrors themselves are not going to abate.
So whereas in On Photography she suggests that photographers were war tourists and voyeurs, choosing to record rather than to intervene in the suffering they witnessed, and she suggests that people who look at such photographs were trying to gain semblences of knowledge and wisdom of the world through ‘some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist’, were mere spectators who had depersonalized their relationship with the world, when she comes later to write Regarding the Pain of Others she acknowledges that in the case, say, of the siege of Sarajevo, ‘pursuing a good story was not the only motive for the avidity and the courage of the photojournalists’ covering the story, noting that ‘the Sarajevans did want their plight to be recorded in photographs: victims are interested in the representation of their own sufferings’.
As for those who consume such images, she writes: ‘Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing – may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget’.
And she insists:
That we are not totally transformed, that we can turn away, turn the page, switch the channel, does not impugn the ethical values of an assault by images. It is not a defect that we are not seared, that we do not suffer enough, when we see these images. Neither is the photograph supposed to repair our ignorance about the history and cause of the suffering it picks out and frames. Such images cannot be more than an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers.
‘An invitation to pay attention’. What a wonderful definition of the gift that good photojournalists (as opposed to that growing tribe of imbedded media-propagandists!) provide for us. May they flourish, and may their work be better valued, here in Australia as well as elsewhere.
Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon, Christos Yannaras, Alan Torrance, and John Panteleimon Manoussakis will be the main speakers at what sounds like an extraordinary conference on ontology and history to be held between 29–31 May in Delphi, Greece. A call for papers has been issued, and number of thematic workshops/panels planned. These are:
New Zealand songwriter Malcolm Gordon, no stranger to this blog, has been at it again. This time, as he tells it, he has been
churned up by what is happening in Australia with the asylum seekers. Some of the friends we met and made in Adelaide last year have been protesting in MP’s offices and been arrested as a result. It’s a justifiably upsetting situation.
This song is one result of that churning:
In these wide open spaces
This land needs tilling
But there’s rumours of war
There’s whispering of killing
Over mountain and flood and over the plain
This dark cloud reigns.
Put my hand to the plough
There’s no turning home
For this stirring within
Won’t leave me alone
And alone is one thing that you’ll never be
There is no ‘them’, there is only ‘we’.
Surely there is room for one more
Love make a way
How many saviours, unseen and displaced here
Will we leave out in the rain?
The weight of these times
Is measured in tears
The risk of this love
Is death to our fears
Give our voice for the groaning
Of children in chains
Forever there’s hope wherever there’s pain.
Surely there is room for one more
Love make a way
How many saviours, unseen and displaced here
Will we leave out in the rain?
Surely there is room for one more
Love make a way
Picture what we could be
A generous family
Where welcoming arms hold open the door.
In these wide open spaces
The wind blows alone
And the streets are just valleys that wander and roam
There is room for the pilgrim to lay down their load
And build a home.
‘They [sic] are some things that I have happily seen of the wondrous and curious works of the spider’. So wrote Jonathan Edwards in his ‘The “Spider” Letter’ (1723). In that same letter, Edwards describes the spider as both ‘most despicable’ and also as ‘wondrous’ because, he argues, it is by observing such and their ‘glistening webs’ that ‘the wisdom of the Creator shines’ forth to ‘the learned world’.
America’s greatest theologian proceeds, at considerable length and with considerable enthusiasm, to recount his observation of spiders who go ‘sailing in the air … doubtless with abundance of pleasure’, before turning, in a moment reminiscent of St Paul’s ecstatic conclusion to Romans 11, to write:
Hence the wisdom of the Creator in providing of the spider with that wonderful liquor with which their bottle tail is filled, that may so easily be drawn out so exceeding fine, and being in this way exposed to the air will so immediately convert to a dry substance that shall be so very rare as to be lighter than the air, and will so excellently serve to all their purposes.
The Creator’s wisdom and ‘exuberant goodness’ is equally manifest, Edwards believes, in the way that the Creator has not only provided every necessity for all sorts of creatures, including insects, but also in the ways that this leads unavoidably not to their ‘recreation’ but to their ‘destruction’. Edwards proceeds to describe the ways that most spiders eventually end up in the ocean – as they are ‘carried over the water their webs grow damp and moist and lose their levity and their wings fail them, and let them down into the water’. The same is true, he writes, of flies, butterflies, millers, and moths – and that there is a kind of justice in this fact. Moreover, he suggests, it too makes plain the Creator’s wisdom, for it is by such that ‘the corruption and nauseousness of the air, of which flying insects are little collections’, are carried off and buried ‘in the bottom of the ocean where it will do no harm’. And spiders are afforded a particularly special place in Edwards’s view precisely because spiders are ‘collections of these collections, their food being flying insects, flies being the poison of the air, and spiders are the poison of flies collected together’.
I’m fascinated by Edwards’s fascination with and attention to such things. (There are moments like this in Calvin’s corpus too which I find equally enchanting.) And I was reminded again of Edwards’ letter late last night while observing a little eight legger devouring a beetle in our front yard. While it may be that the spiders of New England ‘never work in the night’, the same certainly cannot be said of their hairy cousins here in Australia.
I captured that fact by way of a couple of videos which I uploaded to YouTube:
By the way, if anyone can shed some light on the name of this little arthropod (I wasn’t able to identify it here) I’d be grateful.
[Image taken from the Jonathan Edwards Centre, videos taken from Jason’s phone]
I am pleased to be teaching four units at Whitley College (University of Divinity) this year.
In Semester 1:
And in Semester 2:
If you are within cooee of Melbourne, and these subjects interest you, then I’d love to chat with you.* I’m equally happy to chat with prospective postgrad students about possible research projects in theology. Contact Whitley College (by email or phone 03 9340 8100) for more information.
* Note: They tell me that I’m really not as serious or as intense as I sound, or as bald as I look, in the videos (filming on a 40° day didn’t help). They also tell me that I respond very well to loose leaf tea and that I am way too enamoured with subcontinental cuisine. They’re wrong about (at least) one of these things.
Until recently, my major study on P. T. Forsyth – Hallowed Be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth – has only been available in hardback (which is usually my preferred format for non-fiction titles but can be, and in this case is, reasonably pricey) and in e-book format (convenient but not, in my view, the nicest way to read theological tomes).
I was happy to learn of late that the publishers have followed a habit with the T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology series and have now made Hallowed Be Thy Name available in paperback (at a more reader-friendly price too). Those interested can pick up a copy here.
By the way, if you do happen to head over to the Bloomsbury site, some readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem may also be interested to note the appearance of a forthcoming title, The Spirit and the Letter, edited by Paul Fiddes and Günter Badder. It looks great.