Competition to Compassion

Friends,

The Squid Game is a Netflix series that came out in September 2021. It’s been viewed in at least 94 countries by more than 142 million member households. Crazily, it totalled over 165 billion viewing hours in its first 4 weeks.

Each episode has contestants play a variation of a well-known children’s game. The first game is like red light / green light, with contestants allowed to move while a mechanical doll faces the tree, but the moment the doll turns to face the contestants, everyone must freeze. Failure to keep dead still results in death. The contestants are eliminated by being shot. Similarly, one gets a bullet to the head for losing at marbles. A variation of tug-of-war involves the weaker team being pulled over the edge of a high platform resulting in the entire team falling to their death. The anonymous red-suited authorities apply the rules without question, while faithfully honouring their triangle, square and circle hierarchy. The 456 contestants are soon whittled down to a handful with ultimately just one left standing to collect the billions in prize money. All this is entertainment to a tiny group of VIPs.

The concept is horrifying. The violence is terrifying. The brutality is sickening.

What desperation would cause anyone to risk their life to play a series of deadly children’s games? Debt! Each contestant was deep in dept and therefore desperate enough to risk their life for the slightest chance of getting out of it.

Before we are tempted to write off Hwang Dong-hyuk, the creator of The Squid Game, as some kind of sadist, he explains: “I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society – something that depicts an extreme competition somewhat like the extreme competition of life.” Dong-hyuk wrote the Squid Game in 2009 but every film company turned it down saying it was “too grotesque and unrealistic”. It’s deeply troubling to note that by 2019 the same Squid Game came across as more “intriguing and realistic.” Realistic? Yes realistic. A reality exposed and deepened by Covid-19: A recent South African survey reveals that 47% of all respondents have been unable to pay debt and that 45% lost most of their income in the past six months. Globally, on the other extreme a billionaire was created every 26 hours during the Covid pandemic with the wealth of the world’s 10 richest men doubling, rising at a rate of $15,000 (R225k) per second.

What are we to call a system that allows and enables such grotesque inequality? A system that has gone rogue beyond the self-corrective reach of Adam Smith’s naive invisible hand. To follow the brutal consequences of such a system into the flesh and blood of humanity and into the soil and water of creation is to be horrified, terrified and sickened. Surely, evil is not too strong a word?

The purpose of allegory, fable or parable is to open the eyes of an otherwise blind society. To draw us out of our denial. To wake us up from our greedy and violently competitive ways. To urgently change a system lubricated by competition with one centred on compassion. A system that majors in the forgiveness of debts of our neighbours and of nations. In South Africa we do not need horrifying allegory, fable or parable. All we have to do is look outside.

With grace,
Alan

Mini-Messiah-Moment

Friends

The Winter Olympics are taking place at the moment. This would have passed me by were it not for a flurry of news articles about Eileen Feng Gu. I had never heard of her before, which is not surprising since snow is not really our specialty here at the tip of Africa. (I believe Beijing was also a bit snow-challenged for these Olympics, but that is another story.) Gu (18) won gold in the freestyle big air category. Her winning involved some crazy acrobatic stuff that included 4.5 revolutions in the air. Remarkable! She seems to stay in the air forever with every eye in the world watching.

But what I found even more remarkable than her beautiful acrobatics, is the way she answered questions at the press conference that followed. Although the press core seemed blind to the beauty of her answers. You see, Gu was born and raised in the USA but is competing for China, the country of her mother’s birth. The press wanted to know whether Gu was still a US citizen. After beautifully and acrobatically answering the question about her citizenship, another press person persisted: “Yes we understand you … but you were not clear if you still have your American citizenship … will you live in the US or China from now on?”

She repeated her beautiful acrobatics with the following: “I am just as American as I am Chinese. I am American when I am in America and I am Chinese when I am in China. I have expressed my gratitude to both the US and China for making me the person I am. Both have been super supportive. Sport does not have to be related to nationality. My mission is to use sport as a force for unity … to use it as a form to foster interconnection between countries and not use it as a divisive force.”

Isaiah said, “A child will lead”! Ok, in this instance Isaiah exaggerated a bit. But what a delight to see a teenager do summersaults around a press core. The press reminded me of the pharisees of old who would quiz Jesus on tax matters or acceptable Sabbath activity. They disappointedly did not receive the either/or answer their worldview demanded. By the way, the disciples also had to ask Jesus to “be more clear” on many occasions!

I know the book of Revelation says that: “He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him…” but I didn’t realise Jesus would make an appearance in the Olympics. Who knew he could ski? This is just it though. Jesus didn’t look very messiah-like back in the day either. In fact it is probably a safe bet to assume that if the messiah looks like the messiah then it’s probably not the messiah. This was a most unlikely mini-messiah-moment (as they all are) at a press conference from the Olympic village.

And so from the lips of a teenager, “an 18 year old just living her dream” we hear words of wonderous truth that have the power to heal our divided world. Blessed are those with ears to hear. If we incarnate Eileen Gu’s words within our flesh, the Apartheid of nations will come to a beautiful end. Can you hear Jesus say: “Amen”?

With grace,
Alan

Annual General Meeting

CMM’s AGM will take place after the Sunday Service on 6 March.

We postposed it from the end of last year. Due to COVID disruptions, etc. we have some catching up to do. We need to have nominations/elections for Treasurer as well as Society Stewards.

If there is anyone you would like to nominate or if you yourself feel called to be part of the leadership of CMM (what we call the Donkey Team) please do chat with me.

Thank you, Alan

PS: This will be an in-person meeting.

 

Being Peace

Friends,

Today I celebrate the life and teaching of the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. A monk from age 16 until his death last week at age 95.

In 1989 my uncle gave me a book by Thich Nhat Hanh. The book: Being Peace. From each page a distilled wisdom flows. Poetic and parable-like. Each syllable soaked in years of silence. His simple words reach into the depths of human longing and the earth’s groaning.

He writes, “Life is both dreadful and wonderful. To practice meditation is to be in touch with both aspects.” Nhat Hanh draws our attention to a child’s smile as “the most basic kind of peace” and then a moment later on the same page he names the horror of 40 000 children dying of hunger each day and superpowers who have enough nuclear warheads to destroy our planet many times – making “humankind the most dangerous species on earth”.

Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist practice is one of engagement and not escape. He acknowledged that there were so many things that made him want to withdraw, but “my practice helps me remain in society, because I am aware that if I leave society, I will not be able to help change it.” He continues, “I hope that those who are practicing Buddhism succeed in keeping their feet on earth, staying in society. That is our hope for peace.” We could describe Nhat Hanh’s “engaged Buddhism” as being “in the world, but not of the world”.

This spirituality of engagedness is in convicting contrast to much of what passes as Buddhist practice in the West today. Similar to how today’s dominant individualistic consumer culture has co-opted much of Christianity, the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, who some critics now insightfully call “McMindfulness” has sadly also been co-opted.

Nhat Hanh’s way of justice, mercy and humility is rooted in the reality life’s interconnectedness. A reality he refers to as “interbeing”. Speaking with deepened “Ubuntu” tone, he explains: “In one sheet of paper, we see everything else, the cloud, the forest, the logger. I am, therefore you are. You are, therefore I am.” In other words, not only is it true that what we do to our neighbour we do to ourselves, but what we do to the tree or mountain or river or sky, we do to ourselves and each other. Therefore it is not surprising that reverence for Life – all Life – is at the heart of his mindfulness training.

Included in this amazing book is Thich Nhat Hanh’s incredible poem: Please Call Me By My True Names. A poem that invites us to wake up to the truth of who we are. From the reality of “interbeing” we are all victim and perpetrator. The urgency to do justice, love mercifully and walk humbly will grow to the extent that we wake up to this reality.

After I finished reading Being Peace, I was convinced that Jesus would say, Amen – so be it. I believe Jesus would encourage his followers to drink deeply from the living waters of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching.

Here are a few other books you may want to explore.

Thich Nhat Hanh beautifully invites us to be present to the most ordinary aspects of our living. Sitting, walking and eating. See his series on How to

Another amazing book is the conversation Nhat Hanh has with Jesuit monk Daniel Berrigan, the justice and peace activist who challenges a tamed and co-opted Christianity to return to the radical steps of Jesus. (Bell Hooks, another voice of justice and life who died in December 2021 writes the forward.)

And finally I include a devastatingly beautiful novel written by Thich Nhat Hahn, called The Novice.

With grace,
Alan