Monthly Archives: November 2011
You’ve probably heard me speak of this, or perhaps even blog about it before…
There are two extremes that I see. 1) people who are religious, but claim to be ‘non-denominational.’ 2) people who are not religious, and claim to have absolutely no affiliation with anything remotely religious or ‘God’ oriented. I see a number of problems with both of these stances – and I think they’re quite prevalent.
If you like to connect with Christian community, that’s great that you’re open to all forms of expression! Openness is a value I share. The down-side to being ‘non-denominational’ is that it expresses ignorance of one’s background or the reason we uphold certain traditions. It’s true that I am Lutheran, but that does not mean I only associate with other Lutherans or that my ministry is exclusive to those who also claim to be Lutheran. I am Lutheran, and I know that it stems from a certain ethnic background (German) and that it is a branch of the western version of Christianity (Roman Catholicism) and that the modern-day expression of it invites thought as to what we do and why we do it, and that it is also a denomination that seeks ecumenical relations. Also, in my version of Lutheranism (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) I know that we are connected with organizations like Canadian Council of Churches, CLWR, KAIROS, and the Lutheran World Federation, and that such organizations also seek co-operation with other groups (like ACT, Canadian Foodgrains Bank) so to be more effective in ministry in different parts of this country and the world. It is important to know what one’s openness is, based on the community they choose to connect with; it is important to know something of one’s background, too!
On the other side of the spectrum, there are those who claim no affiliation whatsoever. “I don’t subscribe to organized religion,” or “religion causes evil in the world” are the kinds of statements sometimes heard by people who claim no affiliation like this. This seems to be an ignorance of another kind. It’s ignorant of the systems in which we find ourselves – for example, those who are of white, European descent and live in North America are implicated in the awful things that were carried out on First Nations peoples in residential schools. They are implicated by association, whether they like it or not! Yes, I am part of a church, now, and churches have claimed their share of the responsibility for such abuses, but that does not mean that I, myself – or others of my generation in the church – had any direct connection to such awful acts. Yet there are those who would like to “remain neutral” by dissociating. This is just one example. (Another would be the way in which people form opinions of religious groups based solely on negative media reports – such as those of priests who abuse children. Of course, the media does not always balance such news with the good in which churches are often involved, or the positive influence many other priests have had in many other children’s lives.) To be clear, I am not justifying residential schools or abusive priests; hear me when I say that I think it’s good that church communities are accepting responsibility for such things. My point: we’re all implicated more than we may think.
Faith communities – of whatever tradition – are not perfect groups. They, like society, have all kinds associating with them. What they can do well is to gather their communities regularly, journey with their people, and offer moments of reflection and pause in what can otherwise be lives filled with busy-ness.
What I would want to say to those who are either ‘non-denominational’ or ‘non-religious’ is this… Consider embracing a tradition for a while. Perhaps it would stem from your curiosity about your own background, or from your interest in another. And do not fall into the trap of trying to show yourself to be open, and therefore unconnected or somehow without responsibility for that tradition’s mis-steps in the past. Part of faith community – when it is done well – is to acknowledge failings and to seek restoration. The idea is to engage in life in deep and meaningful ways, and such ways are not always comfortable or easy.
Be connected. Be responsible. Peace be with you!
Can we all imagine buying less?
I’m tempted by the discounted computer products, and the percentages off appealing items at the store – I love my things. I’ve got tons of them! …but the thought of moving them, when the time eventually comes to move to a different home, does not appeal to me at all. I need to shed some of these possessions that are beginning to own me!
In the States, there’s been a consumer-driven movement called “Black Friday” for a number of years, now. It’s right after American Thanksgiving, and it’s in anticipation of the great gluttony – disguised as “gift-giving” – in which consumers have chosen to frame Christmas. Sadly, it’s coming to Canada. I prefer to work at the Canadian-originated “Buy Nothing Day” observance.
Everywhere, it seems like ‘more stuff’ is the answer. And, as noted above, it’s easy to get sucked into it – I know I’ve let myself be convinced that I need things I really don’t! And it takes more resources – and dubious business practices – to satisfy the “demand” of the hungry masses. We’re extracting things from the ground at alarming rates. Do we care what kind of planet – or wasteland (as the case may be) – we leave our grand-children?
There’s a movement – albeit a small one (it’s hard to be a voice of change when it’s a change to the system) – where people are being invited to consume less, and to work less. It’s about having more leisure time, and being less of a burden on environment. …and it could also lead to more sharing of wealth, jobs, and learning.
The thing is, we’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced by marketers that we need things we really don’t, and that the newest thing is the best one. Information about how our consumer-habits affect the planet and our relationships (let alone our pocket-books) is swept under the rug. What we need is to take a step back – even to take several ‘buy nothing days’ – and to consider what really leads to happiness, what is really important, and how we might do with less.
It’s about changing what we’ve been lead to believe so that we might have a view for the future. It’s about choosing a different perspective, even as we might be bombarded with messages of cheap goods that will make our lives better, it’s about deciding that this holiday season will be about life for all!
We depend on things we take for granted. In Canada, we know we can show up at the Emergency room at the local hospital, get good care, and check out without being handed a huge bill. We also know that most of our young people can plan on going to post-secondary school because of subsidized tuition – we hold those as values of our country and things we want accessible to all people.
If we were to remove certain provisions, like public health and education, who would have access? How long would that access last? …one or two generations? Would those who have access continue to make things accessible for only their families, or for others? Are we handing power to some at the cost of many?
As a follow-up to my previous blog – I want to ask “what if?” with the desire to invite conversation about systemic change.
-our currency suddenly had no value?
-ownership of the land we live on was up-for-grabs?
-there were no hospitals?
-all modes of transportation were suddenly cut-off?
What if the world came crashing down around us, and we were left to our own devices – no help from family members, no security in the property we owned, no support services available…?
Upon whom do we depend? Who would hold the power? In what would there be value?
We do depend on the earth. What kind of value do we put in what is being called ‘environmental capital‘? In short, how do we value people, their contribution to society and life (generally), and the environment? Do we value somethings more as commodities, and are we doing so to our peril?
…we must ask these questions because the “big if” is upon us!
I wonder about how we, people, operate sometimes. There are many many things we take for granted and then assume it is “just the way things are.”
Our assumptions are based on our individual perspectives. For example, a man views the world through the lens of being a male creature; a person of African decent views the world through the lens of their race; a person from south-east Asia views the world through their cultural heritage; someone who has grown up in the country views the world in that way versus someone from an urban setting, and so on. These, and in so many other ways, are how we frame our experience.
We take things for granted, and then we are convinced certain things can not change. We accept the frames of reference of a few – saying things like “the economy is based on our money, and our currency is not as strong as the next country,” or “the globe would be warming regardless of any human activity.” But are those things – and other such frames – necessarily unchangeable? Yes, it’s like trying to steer a huge ocean-liner in a narrow channel, but is it really impossible? Perhaps this is what the Occupy movement is about – trying to steer things in a different direction. Perhaps we want to change the priorities so that more perspectives are held up.
In the end, we tend to focus on what is individually most advantageous. What will help me accomplish what I want to do or have? We struggle far more with what is corporately most advantageous. What is best for everyone? And the problem for individuals who are being asked to think corporately (as in, the good of the whole) is that sometimes it means a slightly less-desirable existence for the individual. Sometimes it means that we are required to give up some of our individual wealth so that the common good is held up – so that some who currently have little or nothing have some.
We even justify our positions by saying things like, “well, if we change things in this way, we’ll have to change everything, so it’s futile” – and we allow things like discriminatory practices and unjust distribution to continue. We allow certain ‘taken-for-granted’ positions to persist – but we don’t need to!
I’d like to say: what is most advantageous for the least among us is the most advantageous for all of us, together! We must all break out of a mold which says, “me first” – and it’s hard, because we’ve been working at it for centuries. The empires that have sought to colonize other parts of the world have been setting systems in place to transfer goods (and people – slavery turned people into commodities) to the seats of power. We, who live in those places of privilege, must live more conscientiously of those who have little or nothing; and we must be conscious of our imprint on the natural environment around us. What do we leave for future generations? What is most advantageous for the least among us – as people and as environment – is best for us all!
This is a chapter from Chris Hedges’ book, “The Empire of Illusion” (2009).
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Men die, but the plutocracy is immortal; and it is necessary that fresh generations should be trained to its service. -Sinclair Lewis
The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredding of Constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the door of institutions that produce and sustain our educated elite. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, the University of Toronto, and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, along with most elite schools, do only a mediocre job of teaching students to question and think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, AP classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools, entrance exams, and blind deference to authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers. Responsibility for the collapse of the global economy runs in a direct line from the manicured quadrangles and academic halls in Cambridge, New Haven, Toronto, and Paris to the financial and political centers of power.
The elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent, and often subversive. They organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers, and rigid structures designed to produce such answers. The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service – economic, political, and social – come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market, and also with a highly specialized vocabulary. This vocabulary, a sign of the “specialist” and, of course, the elitist, thwarts universal understanding. It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions. It destroys the search for the common good. It dices disciplines, faculty, students, and finally experts into tiny, specialized fragments. It allows students and faculty to retreat into these self-imposed fiefdoms and neglect the most pressing moral, political, and cultural questions. Those who critique the system itself – people such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Dennis Kucinich, or Ralph Nader – are marginalized and shut out of the mainstream debate. These elite universities have banished self-criticism. They refuse to question a self-justifying system. Organization, technology, self-advancement, and information systems are the only things that matter.
In 1967, Theodor Adorno wrote an essay entitled “Education After Auschwitz.” He argued that the moral corruption that made the Holocaust possible remained “largely unchanged” and that “the mechanisms that render people capable of such deeds” must be uncovered, examined, and critiqued through education. Schools had to teach more than skills. They had to teach values. If they did not, another Auschwitz was always possible.
“All political instruction finally should be centered upon the idea that Auschwitz should never happen again,” he wrote:
“This would be possible only when it devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities, to this most important of problems. To do this, education must transform itself into sociology, that is, it must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.”
If we do not grasp the “societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms,” we will be cursed with a more ruthless form of corporate power, one that does away with artifice and the seduction of a consumer society, and wields power through naked repression.
I had lunch in Toronto with Henry Giroux, professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. Giroux was for many years the Waterbury Chair Professor at Penn State. He has long been one of the most prescient and vocal critics of the corporate state and the systematic destruction of American education. He was driven, because of his work, to the margins of academia in the United States. He asked the uncomfortable questions Adorno knew should be asked by university professors. Giroux, who wrote The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, left in 2004 for Canada.
“The emergence of what Eisenhower had called the military-industrial-academic complex had secured a grip on higher education that may have exceeded even what he had anticipated and most feared,” Giroux tells me. “Universities, in general, especially following the events of 9/11, were under assault by Christian nationalists, reactionary neoconservatives, and market fundamentalists for allegedly representing the weak link in the war on terrorism. Right-wing students were encouraged to spy on the classes of progressive professors, the corporate grip on the university was tightening, as was made clear not only in the emergence of business models of governance, but also in the money being pumped into research and programs that blatantly favored corporate interests. And at Penn State, where I was located at the time, the university had joined itself at the hip with corporate and military power. Put differently, corporate and Pentagon money was not funding research projects, and increasingly knowledge was being militarized in the service of developing weapons of destruction, surveillance, and death. Couple this assault with the fact that faculty were becoming irrelevant as an oppositional force. Many disappeared into discourses that threatened no one, some simply were too scared to raise critical issues in their classrooms for fear of being fired, and many simply no longer had the conviction to uphold the university as a democratic public sphere.”
The moral nihilism embraced by elite universities would have terrified Adorno. He knew that radical evil was possible only with the collaboration of a timid, cowed, and confused population, a system of propaganda and mass media that offered little more than spectacle and entertainment, and an educational system that did not transmit transcendent values or nurture the capacity for individual conscience. He feared a culture that banished the anxieties and complexities of moral choice and embraced a childish hypermasculinity.
“This educational ideal of hardness, in which many believe without reflecting about it, is utterly wrong,” Adorno wrote. “The idea that virility consists in the maximum degree of endurance long ago became a screen-image for masochism that, as psychology has demonstrated, aligns itself all too easily with sadism.”
Sadism dominates the culture. It runs like an electric current through reality television and trash-talk programs, is at the core of pornography, and fuels the compliant, corporate collective. Corporatism is about crushing the capacity for moral choice and diminishing the individual to force him or her into an ostensibly harmonious collective. This hypermasculinity has its logical fruition in Abu Ghraib, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our lack of compassion for our homeless, our poor, the mentally ill, the unemployed, and the sick.
“The political and economic forces fueling such crimes against humanity – whether they are unlawful wars, systemic torture, practiced indifference to chronic starvation, and disease or genocidal acts – are always mediated by educational forces,” Giroux says. “Resistance to such acts cannot take place without a degree of knowledge and self-reflection. We have to name these acts and transform moral outrage into concrete attempts to prevent such human violations from taking place in the first place.”
But we do not name them. We accept the system handed to us and seek to find a comfortable place within it. We retreat into the narrow, confined ghettos created for us and shut our eyes to the deadly super-structure of the corporate state.
It was All Saints Sunday, so we shared the peace by addressing each other by name with “saint” in front of it – so people were calling me “St. Tyler.”
In the Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, by Malina and Rohrbaugh, to which I refer quite a bit in my sermon-preparation, a definition of “Honor-Shame Societies” is given in the glossary (“Reading scenarios”) at the back of the book…
Unlike our Western, guilt-oriented society, in the Mediterranean society of the first century (as in the traditional societies of that region today) the pivotal social value was honor. Concern for honor permeates every aspect of public life in the Mediterranean world. Honor is the fundamental value. It is the core, the heart, the soul. Philo speaks of “wealth, fame, official posts, honors and everything of that sort with which the majority of mankind are busy” (Worse 122). He complains that “fame and honor are a most precarious possession, tossed about on the reckless tempers and flighty words of careless men” (Abraham 264). Note Rom 12:10, where Paul admonishes Jesus group members to outdo one another in showing honor, thereby acknowledging the value placed on honor among Jesus groups as well.
Simply stated, honor is public reputation. It is name or place. It is one’s status or standing in the community together with the public recognition of it. Public recognition is all-important. To claim honor that is not publicly recognized is to play the fool. To grasp more honor than the public will allow is to be a greedy thief. To hang on to what honor one has is essential to life itself.
It is likewise a relative matter in which one claims to excel over others, to be superior. It thus implies a claim to entitlements on the basis of social precedence. As a result, honor and shame are forms of social evaluation in which both men and women are constantly compelled to assess their own conduct and that of their fellows in relation to each other. The vocabulary of praise (kalos) and blame (aischros) can therefore function as a social sanction on moral behavior. It is perpetuated by a network of evaluation, the gossip network, which creates an informal but effective mechanism of social control.
Honor is likewise a limited good – related to control of scarce resources, including land, crops, livestock, political clout, and female sexuality. Being a limited good, honor gained is always honor taken from another. Legitimate honor that is publicly recognized opens doors to patrons; honor withheld cuts off access to the resources patrons can bestow. In a very pervasive way, then, honor determines dress, mannerisms, gestures, vocation, posture, who can eat with whom, who sits at what places at a meal, who can open a conversation, who has the right to speak, and who is accorded an audience. It serves as the prime indicator of social place (precedence) and provides the essential map for persons to interact with superiors, inferiors, and equals in socially prescribed or appropriate ways. (pp.369-370)
An honor-shame society is one where one’s identity is found in relation to others. We are “saints” in relation to others. As we shared the peace, we would say “St. Dorothy,” “St. Jim,” and I heard several people saying, “no, no” – we may not think of ourselves as saints. We know what goes on behind the scenes – we know we’re not perfect (as we hope saints would be). But we strive for something better, and we work together as a community, and our contributions to the collective good can place us among the saints. That’s really what it’s about: being a part of something, acknowledging the whole and contributing to it.
In a movement away from an individualistic-orientated society, we can reclaim some of what our ancestors in the faith knew from their honor-shame cultures (in and of themselves, not a perfect system either) – we can reclaim the notion that identity is found in community. Our “saint-hood” is acknowledged and bestowed by the gathered group to which we belong.