Outrage and Longing

Courage

“The desire to surpass our limits is as essential to the structure of the human as the recognition that we cannot.” — Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought

To live with integrity these days is to live inside the conflict between outrage and longing. But, if we become practiced in the art of paradoxical living we will see that dancing on the high wire between these two towers may be our best chance for grace-filled living.

“If we were God,” says philosopher Susan Neiman, “we could change moral principles into sovereign law. Were God Himself to enact such a law, moral principles would lose all connection with freedom.”

And there’s the rub. Being made ‘a little lower than the angels,’ in
the quaint phrasing of the King James Bible, means we are beings who desire wholeness; the state of ‘being made’ means that we will never experience that. We live within the limitations—and the grandeur—of moral freedom in which the desire for the reign of goodness sometimes overrides the understanding that goodness flourishes only where it is wanted, gifted, and received. As Neiman points out, magically changing moral principles into law, even if done by God, would jinx the whole thing because freedom means there is a genuine choice to be made. Making those choices every day is the burden of freedom and the brightness of being human in the image of God. Moral freedom is a form of creativity, available to all of us.

Rollo May, one of the pioneers of existential psychotherapy, quotes Rainier Rilke on withdrawing from psychotherapy: “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.”

Rilke knew that creativity for the artist surges up from the depths, a necessary fire in the mind and heart. Rollo May put creativity and evil in the same room. Creativity, he mused, comes from the rage within us against death and destruction.

If we are made in the image of God and that image in us is the power to create, then how could evil threaten creativity? God, as creator, never creates for destruction because all God’s work is created for life. When we create—and we do—our sense of direction is not inerrant. We create in all directions, some of them winding off to evil and all of them subject to losing their way.

But creative power, moral or artistic, is no guarantee against a certain perversity. Put up a sign for “Wet Paint” and see how long it takes for fingerprints to appear. What would happen, we think, if we did this, this thing we’ve been warned never to do? Let’s try it—just to see what would happen. If it’s awful we’ll know and we’ll never do it again. And off we go. And we find that this evil, now loosed in the world, arrives without a warning label, with no expiration date, and without operating instructions. The terrible truth about creative work is that it can be turned to destruction and that there are always some who will do that just for the hell of it.

One of the ways our outrage can lead our moral creativity astray is to imagine that God resents our natural powers and is suspicious of our freedom. Thomas Merton calls this Promethean theology and comments in The New Man that “This means that man must either save his soul by a Promethean tour de force, without God’s help, or else that man must turn his freedom inside out, stew up all his natural gifts into a beautiful guilt-complex, and crawl towards God on his stomach to offer Him the results in propitiation.” But this is to deeply misjudge God’s love and the grace that is ours.

We are not worms. Our moral and spiritual freedom before God raises us to our feet, lifts our sights, and erases the false image of God we conjure up. “Grace,” says Merton, “is given us for the precise purpose of enabling us to discover and actualize our deepest and truest self.”

“The fantasy of replacing God is the test by which morality itself is decided,” says Neiman. To imagine, with longing, a better world is the flip side of outrage at the present one. It’s the outrage that compels us to imagine a newer world; it’s the longing that endures when we admit that our best efforts will probably not outlast us. But the visioning of such a world, even with all our limitations out at the edges of our sightlines, gives us the energy of hope.

Neiman opens the windows and runs up the shades: “Integrity requires affirming the dissonance and conflict at the heart of experience,” she writes. “It means recognizing that we are never, metaphysically, at home in the world. This affirmation requires us to live with the mixture of longing and outrage that few will want to bear.”

Reaching beyond our expectations is part of our human destiny; falling short is our fate. We are threading our way between hubris and humiliation. There is another way, but it’s much more difficult. This is where faith rides the rails to keep us safe. We need the reach to go beyond, but patience, humility, and good humor helps in knowing that we can do so without trying to usurp God or having to crawl before Him.

Another take on this is from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Beyond Tragedy when he writes, “The church is that place in human society where men are disturbed by the word of the eternal God, which stands as a judgment upon human aspirations. But it is also the place where the word of mercy, reconciliation and consolation is heard: ‘Thou dost well that it was in thine heart.’ Here human incompleteness is transcended though not abolished. Here human sin is overcome by the divine mercy, though man remains a sinner.”

Outrage and longing is not about winners and losers, it’s about “Those who endure to the end . . .” We’re not required to win; we’re invited to travel with “that great cloud” of large-souled ones who have borne their witness before us in all times and all places. If hope means anything and if love lives up to its reputation a time will come when justice and mercy will be the way in the great day of the Lord.

It makes no sense to set a date and expect the arc of justice to touch down in that precise moment. We don’t set the clocks or even wind them up. They were running before we got here and will continue after we’re dead. But it does matter to regard our time and how we spend the little of it that we have.

Our outrage alone will not save this sorry, stubborn, strange, and beautiful world; according to our primal myth that has been done in hope already. So there’s no need for us to presume that we are the hinge of history the universe didn’t know it was looking for. Nor will longing alone be enough. We need them both: the push of outrage to change our world, the pull of longing to heal our restless souls.

Yet, we each have a part to play—perhaps several parts. That much is clear. How we play it is the question, and for that we need patience for ourselves and each other.

If we have a conscience and compassion our outrage can propel us beyond our reticence. If we also live with longing our limits will be no barrier to God’s healing and sustaining grace.

Photo: Unsplash.com

Practicing the Grace We Have Received

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Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? —Matthew 25:37 (NRSV)

When I took a group of students down to a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C. some years ago, I fell into a conversation with a young man who was living and working there. His father was a professor at Yale and this fellow had grown up in ease, if not luxury, and had gotten an Ivy League education for free. I wondered what kept him there, working day in and day out, never getting a word of thanks from those he helped. I wondered because I had just witnessed a homeless man, clutching his coat around him in the January chill, roundly curse out my acquaintance as he served him soup in the gathering shadows outside the row house on Euclid Street.

“Do they ever thank you?” I asked. Kevin stopped for a moment and thought, and then shrugged. “Not really,” he said. “Why do you ask?” He leaned forward to ladle soup into an outstretched bowl.

“Because I wonder what’s in it for you,” I said. “Why do you stay, considering the kind of upbringing you had? You could be anywhere else, doing whatever you want.”

“I am doing what I want,” he said. He frowned, puzzled. “It doesn’t matter whether they thank me or not.”

I persisted. “But you see the same people day after day. Nothing changes for them. Why do you keep at it?”

His answer was indistinct as he reached for a bowl to hand to the old woman in front of him. “Because they could be gods,” I thought I heard him say. Or perhaps he said, “Because they could be God’s.”

The story Jesus tells in Matthew 24 is about Judgment Day. All the nations are gathered in front of the Son of Man who sits upon his throne. He divides them up, some on his right side, some on his left. The writer calls those on the right side “sheep” and those on the left he calls “goats.” Those hearing the story must have understood the analogy because there is no explanation why sheep are preferred over goats as moral exemplars. Since we probably derive most of what we know about sheep and goats from this and other stories in the Gospels, we have to find the meaning for ourselves. And there are two things that are intriguing in this story.

The first is that the list of good actions taken by the sheep is repeated—once with approval by the king and again in puzzlement by the sheep-people. In fact, when we get to the goat part the list is again repeated, this time as actions not taken by the goats (to the disapproval of the king) and their anxious query: Tell us again when we didn’t do these things for you? The actions are important to the writer and to Jesus. Feeding the hungry and thirsty, taking in the stranger and clothing the refugee and the displaced persons, being with the sick and those forgotten in prison—these are the actions which separate the sheep from the goats.

This is what we are to do, all of us, from all the nations. Not just those from churches, mosques, and temples, but just people. They are designated not by religions but by nation-states and cultures. And what separates the nations is not creeds of beliefs or political ideologies or even economic prowess, but how well they take care of those pushed into the shadows and left behind.

The second thing that intrigues is the apparent blindness of both the sheep and the goats to their actions. Both are genuinely surprised at the judgments of the king. The sheep can’t remember doing anything of the sort and the goats are anxiously raking through their memories, trying to think how they could have overlooked something so obviously to their advantage. Both were unconscious of their actions and therein lies the meaning of this tale.

In intercultural communication studies there is a grid that shows the stages a person might go through as they grow aware of the complexity of communication. It is divided into four quadrants of communication competence.

The first is unconscious incompetence, the stage in which we are blithely unaware of our rampaging incompetence. We don’t even notice the trail of missed cues, trampled symbols, and outright weirdness on our part. Somehow, through the grace of God and the graciousness of others, we are spared the humiliation of being called out in public for our sins of commission and omission, and we live to err another day.

But then someone might kindly take us aside and clue us in to what we’ve missed and now, embarrassed but determined, we follow the actions of others like a cat on a laser-pointer. We are focused and aware, but we still make mistakes that can only be lived through and learned from. We are consciously incompetent.

The third phase comes through practice, patience, and imagination as we become consciously competent in our communication with others. While our actions still demand our attention, we have the experience and the confidence to handle most situations that come our way.

In the final phase, rare but not impossible to attain, we are unconsciously competent. We have watched, listened, followed, and learned to the point where we no longer have to decide every action. The situation gives rise to our response. We act in the right way at the right time for the right reason and with the right result. It is so much a part of us that others may describe it as our ‘second nature.’

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This is what Aristotle called virtue, the habit of choosing the right action between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Finding the sweet spot between them is neither formulaic nor precise, he said. Ethics is not like mathematics and we should recognize this for ourselves and others. Cut some slack, he said, this kind of thing takes a lot of practice. It’s not enough to self-consciously act appropriately one time and feel we’ve done our duty, for “one swallow does not a summer make.”

This is what Confucianism and Taoism call wu wei, “action-less action,” that which requires no effort on our part because we have practiced. The body and muscles retain memory, just as does our conscience. It is what Jesus calls “walking in the Way.” Aristotle thought it would be best if we started early in life on this and Hebrew sages encouraged parents to train up their children in the way they should go and when they were old (adults) they would not depart from it.

We do depart from it, of course, and quite frequently. Just as the sheep can learn the unconscious competence of virtue through practice, the goats can learn the unconscious competence of vice in the same way. This is what flares up into deadly force between people and roars up into wars. It’s what turns economic policy into weapons against the poor and cuts off those who struggle to speak.

The habits of a lifetime become our character. None of us succeed at this without effort; all of us are capable of behavior that is grace-filled.

Photo: Pixabay, Graphic: Barry Casey

Welcoming the Child

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“Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’” — Mark 9:36, 37

Jesus called a child to him. I am that child. Or was. That was many years ago and now I have a child of my own. I remember him that day, how he smiled at me, and touched me on the shoulder as I was playing. He drew me to him and put his arms around me. I looked down at his tanned hands, the fingers interlaced across my chest. When he spoke to the men around me I could feel the resonance of his voice rumbling through his face next to mine.

I knew these men. They were friends of my father and my father was one of them. I was glad that day because my father was at home, finally, and I hoped that he would stay for a few days this time, before he and the others and Jesus went off again.

I liked Jesus. He was kind to me and he listened to me. Sometimes he would carry me on his shoulders down by the lake and he would tell me stories as we skipped rocks. But sometimes, when we were sitting by the lake, he looked sad. I knew children weren’t supposed to ask grownups questions about themselves. “You don’t want to pry into other people’s business,” my mother always said, but it made me sad to see him that way.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?’ He called a child, set him in front of them, and said, ‘I tell you this: unless you turn round and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven. Let a man humble himself till he is like this child, and he will be the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.” — Matt. 18: 1-5

***

The grownups are acting like children, we say, when they squabble and bicker over who gets to be first in line. In the midst of this revolutionary experiment of living up to a higher plane, the disciples want to know, in all seriousness, who will be first in the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus does not react with impatience or astonishment. Instead, he draws a child to him and, encircling him with his arms, speaks of turning in the opposite direction, away from the door which the adults have crafted and toward a child’s doorway, one that you would have to bend down to get through—that is, if you’d even noticed it.

Once again, Jesus reverses expectations with such abruptness that you can almost see the skid marks. “Become like children,” he says, in a society in which children, while loved, were to be seen and not heard. Decisions were made for children, not with them. Children gazed upward, puzzled, as the adults vigorously debated the consequences of their behaviors and the perils of nonconformity over their heads. No one, having been a child, would want to return to that state.

To turn around on this track (the word is metanoia, to repent) means to recapture the difference between childishness and childlikeness, the latter of which picks up the simplicity and trustfulness of childhood. We cannot, knowing what we know as adults, simply reverse the tape and re-record our lives. Nor is there any goodness in a pious helplessness that refuses action without a direct command from God.

We don’t chide children for being “childish.” It’s what we call people whose behavior doesn’t match their age. But to be “childlike” is to suggest a sense of trust, of wonder, of innocence. When spoken of an adult there is sometimes a tinge of pity, as if this naif was off picking flowers when he should have been reading up survival guides for the apocalypse. Sometimes you sense a bit of wistfulness for eyes that can see goodness in the world or in another person.

And then there is Paul:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways . . . Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults. — I Cor. 13:11; 14:20

Except you become as a little child you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Christ wants us to be childlike; Paul wants us to grow up.

It’s a question of maturity and, as Reinhold Niebuhr suggests in Beyond Tragedy, “Childhood cannot see beyond its time and place. Maturity extends the range of its knowledge to larger areas of life and experience. Maturity is thus the fulfillment of the promise of creation. It represents a larger life than childhood.”

But maturity can also signal the atrophy of imagination and eagerness. Sincerity devolves into deviousness, ‘mere’ honesty into becoming brutally honest. Maturity that has lost its anticipation of the new relies on the sighs of cynicism to carry the weight of authority.

The consciousness of childhood gives way to the self-consciousness of the youth, and the egotism of the adult. Every adult experiences the reality of the Fall, over and over, in the course of life. Our rational freedom, a gift from God, opens possibilities to transcend our situation. But it’s also reason which often sabotages our ability to achieve such harmony. Niebuhr warns that, “Therefore man is estranged from himself and discovers that there is a law in his members which wars against the law that is in his mind (138).”

Becoming as a little child again is not a promise of a recaptured innocence. “To repent and be converted,” says Niebuhr, “cannot mean to achieve perfect honesty. It must mean to achieve the honesty of knowing that we are not honest (142).”

Paul sees spiritual maturity as the conscious evolution of the child in Christ. There’s no condescension toward being a child: the child speaks, thinks, and reasons as a child should. Rising to maturity, on the other hand, is not inevitable as one clocks the years. The very fact that Paul has to exhort the Corinthians suggests that becoming an adult involves a clear-eyed decision to take the long view over the short-term gratification of childishness.

“Be infants in evil,” says Paul, “but in thinking be adults.” Paul, of all people, is neither naive nor cynical. Don’t be experts in the latest ways to do others in. Don’t be sophisticated in your conspiracies against your enemies. Be innocent of evil and be grown up in how you think.

***

As I say, I remember Jesus from that day, the last time I would see him. He went up to Jerusalem. He was killed there, my father told us. Something else happened soon after. My father wouldn’t say much about it, but every time he talked about it he’d shake his head in wonder. A few years later someone read us a letter at our gathering that said, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

***

“And we are put on earth a little space,

That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”

— William Blake, Songs of Innocence

Photo: Carolina Sanchez, Unsplash.com

Loyalty: Comey and Trump

Everybody has heard of loyalty; most prize it; but few perceive it to be what, in its inmost spirit, it really is,—the heart of all the virtues, the central duty amongst all duties.

— Josiah Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty

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(Photo: The Washington Post)

Loyalty does not appear in Aristotle’s list of virtues, nor does it show up in St. Paul’s fruits of the Spirit, but it is something that the great mass of people know to be valued between friends, toward spouses, and by tribal warlords, Mafia families, fraternity brothers, and Marines. That such a wide variety of individuals and groups hold loyalty dear should not surprise us, since in a time of torrential self-interest we treasure any branch we can cling to that will arrest our plunge over the falls.

Josiah Royce, longtime professor at Harvard and lifelong friend and philosophical jouster with William James, declared loyalty to be the primary virtue. In his Philosophy of Loyalty(1908), he outlines it as the fulfillment of morality and declares, “Justice, charity, industry, wisdom, spirituality, are all definable in terms of enlightened loyalty.” He could hold to this sweeping maxim because he viewed our lives as a tension between the autonomy of the individual and our duty to the community. Loyalty is the magnetism that holds the poles of individual desires and community responsibilities within the same force field.

Royce defines loyalty as a voluntary dedication to a cause outside ourselves. This doesn’t come naturally, since most of us, when we are young, don’t have a clue who we are and why we are here. And this also sets up a paradox, as he puts it: “No outer authority can ever give me the true reason for my duty. Yet I, left to myself, can never find a plan of life. I have no inborn ideal naturally present within myself. . . Whence, then, can I learn any plan of life?”

His answer is that we learn from the models set before us in life. We learn to play, to work, to speak, by entering into our social life with others. Living and learning from others stimulates our own self-expression and our own individuality. It’s never simply a matter of imitating others. We conform in order to learn and having learned we build our own plan for life within the social community.

“Thus loyalty, viewed merely as a personal attitude” says Royce, “solves the paradox of our ordinary existence, by showing us outside of ourselves the cause which is to be served, and inside of ourselves the will which delights to do this service, and which is not thwarted but enriched and expressed in such service.”

If we’re fortunate and have learned from good people we may find that purpose which centers our life, that gives us passion and defines the shape of our soul.

Artists and musicians know something about the power of a cause outside themselves. It is that which Bob Dylan spoke of in his Nobel Prize lecture as the spark that passed between him and Buddy Holly in one of the last concerts before Holly was killed in a plane crash. Dylan describes his awe as he watched from six feet away on the front row: “He looked me right straight dead in the eye, and he transmitted something. Something I didn’t know what. And it gave me the chills.”

A day or two later, just after Holly was killed, someone he didn’t even know handed Dylan a Leadbelly record. “That record changed my life then and there,” he said. “It was like an explosion went off. Like I’d been walking in darkness and all of the sudden the darkness was illuminated. It was like somebody laid hands on me.”

Still a teenager, still living at home, still Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota, the convergence of those experiences turned him inside out. The music set him free because it was real to life. The books he devoured in grammar school—Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Moby Dick, The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front—their themes shaped the world inside his heart and fleshed themselves out in his lyrics. His music was his passion, that to which he gave his life.

We see loyalty here to Beauty, to Truth, to Justice—we could call up a hundred moments in the lives of those who have electrified us through the causes that gripped them. Think of Steve Jobs’ fierce dedication to the perfect convergence of Art and Technology. Pick almost any of the Old Testament prophets for whom the cause of justice burned within their bones until they cried out. Antigone and Creon, separated by an abyss of ritual duty—which one is truly loyal, which one irredeemably corrupted? Loyalty runs through our history and literature like a stitch along a seam: now we see it, now we don’t, but a pattern is clearly there.

Aristotle said, “To thine own self be true,” which sounds close enough to loyalty for most of us. It’s a value that we’ve embraced, despite the fact that “our self” is in flux and at times a mystery even to us. There’s more than a hint of desperation in the memes and tweets that proclaim how humbled we are by our own awesomeness. Royce reminds us that, “Loyalty is social. If one is a loyal servant of a cause, one has at least possible fellow-servants.”

But if loyalty is midwife to the emergence of the self, “Loyalty without self-control is impossible. The loyal man serves. That is, he does not merely follow his own impulses. He looks to his cause for guidance.”

That brings us to Donald Trump and James Comey, and the loyalty demanded by one and withheld by the other. In his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey describes a tense meeting with Trump in the White House in January soon after the inauguration. Summoned to a private dinner with the president, Comey was told “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” According to The Washington Post, “Comey said he “didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.” The president again asked for loyalty, but this time Comey recovered enough to promise him honesty. That apparently wasn’t enough for Trump: “I will give you honest loyalty,” said Comey, and with that rather stilted expression the dinner concluded. The conversation for Comey, again in the words of The Post, “raised concerns in his mind. ‘My common sense told me what’s going on here is he’s looking to get something in exchange for granting my request to stay in the job,’ Comey testified.”

In the light of what Royce has said about loyalty, some observations can be made. First, both men understand the word “loyalty” in very different ways. Trump uses it, rather paradoxically, to express both domination and need. He expects Comey’s loyalty as due him by virtue of his position as president. More importantly, he expects it as payment for the debt incurred by Comey because Trump allowed him to stay in the job—despite the fact that FBI directors typically serve a 10-year term. But Trump also needs Comey’s loyalty, a slip of the tongue that reveals perhaps more than he intended. He needs the assurance that everyone who serves him can be trusted and is willing to pay obeisance. Thus, for Trump loyalty is strictly a personal matter of the noble pledging fealty to the king.

Comey, however, recoils from such a misuse of loyalty because for him there is a much larger issue at stake. He has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution and to maintain a bright, clear line between the kinds and uses of power for their appropriate ends. Furthermore, the loyalty demanded is only as strong as the loyalty given; loyalty cannot be coerced, only earned.

Let us admit that even with the best of intentions our loyalties are divided and our motives are mixed. H. Richard Niebuhr, an American theologian and social critic, channels Royce quite neatly when he notes, “Without loyalty and trust in causes and communities, existential selves do not live or exercise freedom or think. Righteous and unrighteous, we live by faith. But our faiths are broken and bizarre; our causes are many and in conflict with each other. In the name of loyalty to one cause we betray another; and in our distrust of all, we seek our little unsatisfactory satisfactions and become faithless to our companions.”

If we accept Royce’s thesis that loyalty is dedication of oneself to a cause outside of oneself, then the differences between the two men become even starker. Trump’s version of loyalty is a demand centered on satisfying himself alone; Comey’s is a principle that points beyond itself — and him — to an ideal of justice and fairness. Comey is loyal to the ideal of loyalty; Trump is loyal only to himself.

We Are Our Communication

“Every part of a system is so related to its fellow parts that a change in one part will cause a change in all of them and in the total system. That is, a system behaves not as a simple composite of independent elements, but coherently and as an inseparable whole.”

These dispassionate words may not come to mind when we see the shelling in Gaza or watch in horror the videos of what the Islamic State is doing to Christians in Mosul. But they give us a way to deal with these extremes and to understand them.

The quote is from Pragmatics of Human Communication (1967) by Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin, and Don Jackson, who were three of the principal researchers at the Mental Research Institute of Palo Alto in the late 60s and early 70s. The pioneering work that they did, trying to understand the connections between communication and human behavior, was an interdisciplinary venture that spanned psychopathology, mathematics, literature, systems theory, and communication studies. They wanted to know how communication as an interactional process affected our behavior.

Starting from the axiom that “all behavior is communication and one cannot not communicate,” they arrived at the conclusion that everything we do when we communicate with each other affects all our communication processes and cannot be separated out. Put simply, to say that the actions of person A causes the behavior of person B ignores the relation of B to A and the effect B may have on A’s subsequent reactions.

Like it or not, they seem to be saying, we’re all in this together. Every time Hamas fires a rocket at an Israeli settlement it is communicating; with the inevitable reciprocation on Gazan villages there is a deadly communication process in place that becomes a feedback loop. Every action results in a reaction which provokes a new action ad infinitum.

Furthermore, if we isolate an action in order to find its cause—and thus to blame—we miss the wider context in which that action takes place. We discover that actions happen in a context and that that context occurs within a relationship between people and groups. Focusing on the particular actions and not on the relationship between the parts of this system results in us missing the meaning of the actions that take place.

An example given by the authors is the difference between my foot kicking a stone and me kicking a dog. When my foot hits the stone it will move and eventually come to rest again. But if I kick the dog it may jump up and bite me. The kick has become not simply energy but information; my behavior has communicated something which the dog, rightfully so, interprets as an attack and responds accordingly. A kick is not just a kick within a relationship: it sends a message that grew out of the relationship prior to the kick and will affect responses to the kick.

As I read news reports of the actions of ISIS/Islamic State, watched videos, and read the comments of readers and viewers I could feel a tension building in me. I could imagine the desperation of the thousands trapped on Sinjar Mountain, the children dying from thirst and exhaustion. And I wanted to obliterate the militants surrounding them on the plains below. It wasn’t enough that American pilots drop supplies to the victims: I wanted to see the bodies of those fighters after the bombs tore through them. I wanted video of them calling out for help as they bled to death.

And then a curious but inevitable thing happened. As the tension in me built the world divided up neatly into right and wrong, black and white, us and them. Crush them all! Barbarians! Stomp their lives out! So they’re killing Christians and ethnic minorities? Damn Muslims!

In a flash I had gone from righteous indignation to murderous wrath, from a generalized tolerance for other religions to a Crusade mentality against all Muslims. From the particular to the general. Kill ’em all and let God sort it out later.

It got even worse when I stumbled across a website that is apparently run by Christians who believe Islam is Satanic. Their comments were raw hatred, all the visceral fear and fury of those who are absolutely certain that their enemy is the Devil and they are on the side of the angels. And these were self-confessed Christians. In the words of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, I looked from pigs to men and from men to pigs, and already I could not tell the difference. And that’s when I remembered Paul Watzlawick and his pragmatics of human communication.

I realized I was confronted with a moral dilemma that I couldn’t face—the slaughter of the innocents. I was helpless to do anything except inwardly rail against the perpetrators. The situation was too complex for me to handle, so I simplified it. I had divided my perceptual world in two: Christians and Muslims. But of course it’s much more nuanced than that. It’s Sunni against Shiite, Kurdish against Iraqis, caliphate against sovereign states, America against rebel forces, economic interests against religious and political ideologies, men against women and children, hate-filled Christian extremists against fanatical Islamic jihadists.

But even that was still too simple, a binary response to something multi-faceted and entangled. I recalled something I’d read years ago by William Irwin Thompson, a cultural historian and philosopher: “We become the thing we hate,” he said. And I remembered, too, how easily we are manipulated by media images, and how adept political and military groups have become at the propaganda arts. Our instant and ubiquitous media draws us all across the lines in the sand. By watching we become changed—and not for the better. All those Christian groups glued to their YouTube videos, who thought Hamas and Islamic State would be in our streets next week unless we nuked them, would be more likely to turn on their neighborhood mosque or to beat up someone wearing a hijab on the Metro.

I am not at all settled on this. I could visualize myself, with the best intentions, running out into no mans land with my hands out, imploring both sides to cease fire, and getting shot before I could make my eloquent statement. Where am I on the non-violence idea? Generally for it, from the safety of my Maryland suburb. Children in Mosul were being beheaded, said a Chaldean-American activist on CNN. Is that true? I shudder to think so, and yet my children have their heads on their shoulders in the sweet summer evening air. Am I to feel guilt because we are safe, our home has not been bombed, my wife and daughter have not been raped? Guilt of that sort doesn’t seem productive and yet my heart can feel the terror and the blind rage and the sheer relief of having survived an attack, all in my imagination.

Hobbes thought the world was a place of constant terror, a life that was, as he famously put it, ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’ Kant was steadfast against lying and murder, for any reason, and Aristotle counseled moderation in all things. Courage and prudence were cardinal virtues that didn’t need to be moderated; how could you be too courageous or too prudent? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that Christian exemplar of integrity and ethics, said, ‘When a horse is running wild in the street, you stop the horse.’ There is a time for words and a time for action, he seemed to be saying. Pacifist that I am would I hesitate to shoot someone about to murder women and children? The Tao cautions that violence should be the absolute last resort, and be discharged with sorrow and not with triumph.

What is becoming clearer to me is that we are, all of us in this tortured, dark, yet beautiful world, bound to one another. The death of one—any one—impoverishes all of us. This, I am convinced, is not New Age ignorance disguised as bliss. It is, rather, part of the virtues of humility and courage that Jesus and others exemplified. We cannot not communicate. All that we are, says the Dhammapada, is a result of what we have thought. Our revolution begins from the inside—and affects the world.

How WAU Can Win (Back) Friends and Influence People

Washington Adventist Community

None of us want to see WAU close. That includes us here at WAC. Although we’ve been accused of being an “evil” website trying to bring down the university, that is far from our intention. What we want is what many others want: a healthy, financially stable educational institution, with a clear sense of purpose, that is dedicated to helping students learn how to learn and how to transform their world into part of the kingdom of God. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

But you can’t achieve good ends by shifty means. You can’t build on sand and you can’t cut corners in the construction of “present truth.” What we’re looking for from the administration of Dr. Spence, Provost Kisunzu, and VP Farley first, is transparency. There are tough problems right now at WAU, and bunkering down behind false promises and self-interest isn’t going to help. We’re all…

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Down the Rabbit Hole

Washington Adventist Community

One of the purposes for which Washington Adventist Community, aka WAC, exists is to raise questions about the actions of the administration at Washington Adventist University, aka WAU. And there is no end to the questions that come to mind. In fact, trying to figure out the logic behind their actions can consume more time than any of us should spend. Nevertheless, we here at WAC do it so that you don’t have to. However, a word of caution: if you should plunge headlong down the rabbit hole into this alternate reality don’t expect to find your way back to the light without considerable effort. With that in mind, we’ll begin.

Despite almost seven years of contradictory evidence we continue to look for a clear plan for this university. We’re not talking about “The Plan,” the prosaically-named revision of the strategic plan of the early part of the century. We’re…

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