Complacency and Despair

Friends,

Lent begins with the shattering of our complacency or it does not begin at all.

For this reason prophet Joel gave us ‘what for’ on ASH Wednesday. The “fierce urgency” of his tone was to wake people up. To wake up a people living in denial of death about to engulf their world. This death was the consequence of forsaking the life-giving ways of justice, mercy and humility. Especially justice, mercy and humility in relation to the most vulnerable of society – contained within the vulnerable Trinity: widow, orphan and foreigner. Due to the way society was set up socially, politically, economically and theologically, these three groups were the easiest to exploit, scapegoat, demean and get away with it.

Too often we only wake up when the consequences of our complacency threaten to catch up to us. At this late stage it is difficult to see a way out and easy to be overwhelmed. We can move from denial (there is no problem) directly to despair (the problem is too big).

Realising this, Joel invites us to trust that “even now” we can act. In this we are invited to occupy the arena of perhaps. Perhaps, is filled with spacious possibility. Perhaps declares the future is not finitely fixed and therefore there is hope.

Once our complacency is shattered and we overcome the temptation not to act, we face temptations on how we will act. Regardless how well-meaning we are, our action can deepen the problem rather than bring relief. As Jesus’ wilderness wrestling reveals, the devil is in the detail of our actions.

The first temptation is to think we can bring authentic change without the transformation of the human heart that caused the problem in the first place. For example, we fall to this temptation each time we think technology will save us. The lie within this promise is that we can have change without actually changing ourselves. Lasting change demands we actually change.

The second temptation is that our relationships with the Divine, each other and creation are to rest on a quid pro quo formula rather than on grace and the gratitude and generosity that flow from grace. In the quid pro quo world the priest tells us who is in credit / debit or who is saved and who is not. It is a segregated world that states some are worthy while others are not. This world view is often what stubbornly validates structural injustice in the world. In the world of grace the priest reminds us who we all are…beloved. All are beloved and therefore all are worthy of love.

In a quid pro quo world we are only as good as our last deal. And so our third temptation is the need to prove ourselves over and over again. To prove ourselves by promoting and protecting ourselves. This poisons our action with a self-centredness and self-righteousness. We use false categories, like health and wealth to show we have sufficiently proved ourselves, while poverty and sickness are proof we have failed. Suffering becomes the sign of failure and thus God’s forsakenness. The ultimate aim of one’s life is then to avoid suffering at all cost. The fear of suffering limits our loving. Justice and mercy no longer set our true north and we are soon lost, having turned inwards. In seeking to save our lives we lose them. Suffering is not to be sought after for it carries no merit in itself. However, suffering as a consequence of resisting systems that are neither just nor merciful is the clearest sign of faithfulness. The Cross is a sign of such faithfulness.

As a result of Putin’s war in Ukraine many have rightly spoken up with fierce urgency at the complacency and hypocrisy of too many of us regarding other invasions in recent history. Racism has again been exposed in how the suffering of white people is more acutely felt and covered by the media than the suffering of black people. Instead of this truth silencing our opposition to Putin it should provoke us to raise our voice “even now” (especially now!) against all invasions and permanent occupations. This complacency and hypocrisy is clearly seen in relation to Apartheid-Israel (underpinned by USA money and military) and Palestine. I mention this in particular because of how so many Christians are not only complacent in the face of Palestinian suffering but actively endorse Apartheid-Israel’s theft of Palestinian land and subsequent violent oppression of Palestinians. Believing the violent occupation is a biblical blessing blinds them to the truth that God has no favourites and deafens them to the Hebrew prophet’s cry against those who turn justice back by acting inhumanely. No one. No one.  No one. Gets a free pass to act inhumanely.

God have mercy on us … who struggle to live mercifully in relation to all our sisters and brothers.

With grace,
Alan

 

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Family

Masters of War by Bob Dylan
(click link for music and full lyrics)

Friends,

Back in the biblical day it was custom for Rabbis to summarise their teaching in a prayer. Therefore what we call The Lord’s Prayer, is more than likely Jesus’ teaching summary. A summary that Jesus’ followers are invited to meditate on and act on. The core of Jesus’ teaching summary focuses on the need for daily bread and the forgiveness of debts. In other words, justice and mercy are central to the Jesus-way of Life-Giving-Living.

Story after story in the Gospels invite us to grow in justice and mercy and to do so not only with our neighbours but also with our enemies. In short, with everyone.

This seems impossibly difficult, yet many of us are both recipient and practitioner of this Jesus-way of Life-Giving-Living on a micro scale maybe without even realising it. In every loving family Life-Giving-Living is practiced through the sharing of daily bread and the forgiveness of debts. Without fair sharing and repeated forgiveness a family would not last.

Returning to Jesus’ teaching summary, we are reminded that it begins with the words: “Our Parent…” Jesus’ teaching begins by informing us that we belong to one human family. To call God “Our Parent…” is to recognise that we are each other’s siblings. Jesus’ teaching summary invites us to claim this as the real reality of every relationship we are in. Jesus knows that unless we are able to recognise each other as family we will not be able to practice the justice and mercy necessary for Life-Giving-Living. The saving of the world will be determined by those who trust and live out the truth of this three letter word OUR.

From Jesus’ perspective of universal family, the language of “love of one’s own” or “these are my people” or “God is on our side” is made obsolete. This language often defines “one’s own” or “my people” or “our side” by nationality, language, culture, skin colour, religion, etc. It leads to the feeling, “When I walk the streets of the Johannesburg CBD, I become a foreigner in my own country”. And this leads to the slogan, “Put South Africans First”. And this leads to the formation of Operation Dudula. It is the language of nationalism, sectarianism, xenophobia and war. It is the language of Vladimir Putin. It is also the language of many of us.

For this reason Jesus kept opening the eyes of the blind. The blind being those of us who fail to recognise a sister and brother in the person next to us and across the way from us. On this Transfiguration Sunday let us pray for our eyes to be opened that our seeing of each other may be gloriously transfigured. This was the amazing gift given to Thomas Merton in Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut … may it happen to us.

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream…

“This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…. It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself (sic) gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake…

“There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun… There are no strangers! … If only we could see each other [as we really are] all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed… I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other…

“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship (sic). It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.

“I have no program for this seeing. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”

With grace,
Alan

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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

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