Why not? These are the perennial questions, after all; these sorts of issues help us distinguish true fellowship from the false communities about which the late Scott Peck so eloquently warned us. These concerns and conversations are what might fit us for eternity. They shape our understanding of both poles of the Gospel invitation that I mentioned recently on this site: repent and believe the Good News.
Moreover, it would not do to let today's crises divert us from these precious conversations. When don't we have crises? And when doesn't the popular media trade on these crises to build audience? In response, a couple of my dearest friends simply don't listen to the news or read newspapers. They have no lack of spiritual wisdom, and I benefit from knowing them.
In my Quaker experience, few things rub us the wrong way quite like a political speech popping up during open worship. I share this irritability. It is much nicer to have a well-chosen morsel of Scripture, or a fresh spiritual insight or heartfelt confession.
Nevertheless . . . .
Nevertheless . . . .
How do I put this? Are we able to be so decent and balanced and centered and mature because the bombs and shells and missiles are landing a safe distance away? Would we continue to focus on the perennial and the eternal if the present were far more hazardous to ourselves and our children?
Years ago, I was operating audio equipment in a movie projection booth in Mexico. I vividly remember noticing some exposed electrical connections and bare wires in the booth, the kind of connections that would usually be safely covered in the USA. That lack of safety margin in one specific place (maybe the only such defective place in all of Mexico for all I know) became a metaphor for me. Have we become so accustomed to our safety margin in our affluence that we have lost touch with the lack of margin in most of the world?
The world is not dramatically divided into those who suffer and those who don't. Sooner or later, we all suffer. But most of the time, most of us, wherever we are, rich and poor (in material terms), are resilient and find ways to enjoy life. It's our vulnerability that differs dramatically. We all deserve equally the possibility of a fuller life in a less oppressive and capricious environment—in other words, more equal access to a margin of safety and security.
When that seems simply unattainable, I want to know why. Who benefits when vast numbers of people live with no safety margin, and who benefits when particular populations live in particular danger—as on today's Lebanese/Israeli border, and in today's Baghdad? Could it ever be that my security is (apparently) being enhanced because someone else's security is being reduced or traded away? Or because someone theorizes, against all the evidence of history, that the temporary and carefully targeted application of lethal force in one place will eventually reap blessings for everyone? Can I in fact pray and talk calmly about the Bible and Jesus while my neighbors thousands of miles away are "regrettably" being killed and injured with munitions paid for by my taxes?
About forty years ago, Douglas Steere wrote a pamphlet, published by Pendle Hill, entitled On Being Present Where You Are. (PDF edition here.) In it, he cites Ortega y Gasset's discussion of the various kinds of love between a man and a woman. In the fourth, most agape-like love,
. . . which Ortega only hints at, something of Rilke’s brilliant flash of insight enters when he describes love as “two solitudes” that “protect and touch and greet each other.” Each is willing to drop, or at least to lower, the projected image and to feel an increasing sense of responsibility that the other should fulfill the mysterious destiny that God has hidden within him whether this shatters the image or not. Each counts it an infinite blessing to be able to live in the presence of the other and to be forever surprised by the joy of seeing the other grow from the deepest inner vision that is hidden in him.I see in Steere's words an insight into the possible resolution of my frustration with spiritual fiddling while Rome burns. The extension of our loving care and our prophetic discernment beyond the boundaries of convenience, affluence, and denial actually demands a great spiritual effort. We need to bring the devotional and the activist believers into a closer community, a greater forbearance with each other, and, somehow, even a more creative and persistent collaboration.
Sometimes the loved one himself loses the vision and the one who loves him is prepared to suffer, sustain, and to have faith in him during the time that he is in flight from his destiny. Often enough there are storms and crises and it is only in the moments of forgiveness and reconciliation that this fourth type of relationship emerges or is restored. There can be little doubt that the post-crisis presence is often superior to the pre-crisis one for it has been tested and has been vindicated. Sometimes it is only when the partner has been threatened with some form of extinction that the reverence for the mystery and wonder of the true person in the partner surfaces, and for the first time the real person is present to the partner.
This fourth level searches each of us to the quick not only in our friendships and marriage but also in our contacts with other religions, races and nations. We long to be truly present to each other but we tremble before the possible cost of such vulnerability and are tempted to settle for something less exacting.
The Bible itself provides profound models for the collaboration of piety and politics. Consider the raw challenge of Jeremiah 2:12-13 (The Message):
"Stand in shock, heavens, at what you see!Is this warning being totally ignored in the Holy Land today? (Or for that matter among those constructing novel quakerisms?)
Throw up your hands in disbelief—this can't be!"
"My people have committed a compound sin:
they've walked out on me, the fountain
Of fresh flowing waters, and then dug cisterns—
cisterns that leak, cisterns that are no better than sieves."
What about Ephesians 5:11-13, which keeps coming back to me when I read about Bush and Cheney and their drive to monopolize power and conceal everything they possibly can about their "war" on terrorism?
Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible....For God's sake, expose, expose, and keep exposing! But let's do so with spiritual integrity, confessing to God and each other the things we conceal, rather than using politics as a way to deflect and deny the internal work that we must still do. (Or at least this is what I must do.)
In Lebanon, Riad Kassis asks, "What should I tell my daughter when bombs fall and the great nations say nothing?" In fact, the "great nations" are saying things that are worse than nothing. Condoleezza Rice breaks with decades of hard-won experience to tell the world that "the conditions must be right" for a cease-fire in Lebanon. The very purpose of a cease-fire is to stop the killing first, in order to arrange the "right conditions." But Rice and her bosses have decided that further killing, lubricated by crocodile tears for Lebanon, will bring those right conditions closer. Who are they to decide this? And why is it that the mainstream media are content to cover events such as yesterday's Lebanese crisis consultation in Rome by basically quoting Rice and one or two other leaders, as if the story ended there?
Instead of wading in to the mess and negotiating collaboratively and respectfully with the actual combatants, our government's priority is, once again, to lecture the world on the true conditions for peace. We have the power to do that, and certainly the arrogance, but we do not have the credentials.
Maxine has been back in Iraq for a couple of weeks. This report arrived early yesterday:
26 July 2006 in Sulimaniya, Kurdistan
I'm now in Sulimaniya, in the Kurdish region of Iraq in the northern part of the country. It is safe and quiet here. The [CPT] team came here originally to determine if we could use this as a route to working in the central and southern part of Iraq again as it was difficult for us to get visas there after the kidnapping. However, with the deterioration in the situation there we determined with our friends and advisors that it is simply not our place to be there right now.
It was hard to hear that. What people were saying in essence is that the violence is so bad that we couldn't be of help right now.
Granted, it is more complicated than just our skills couldn't be used there. A lot of it has to do with the fact the country is basically in civil war and no one feels safe right now, and most would leave if they could. They can't in good conscience advise us to come back and work when they themselves see the only viable option as fleeing. For most it's not an option. To leave you need money, or connections, or both. And where to go? Many countries are refusing to accept Iraqis because of the fear, the fear that they might bring the terrorism with them.
Iraqis are feeling like the lost, forgotten or rejected souls of the world.
One of our translators from Baghdad was here to see us in Sulamaniya. He told of the "smell of death" in Baghdad right now, and that people joke that they shouldn't greet each other with the normal greetings, but rather with the Arabic version of "God rest your soul" because they feel doomed to die. It's so hard to hear that, and to know that my government had a major role in the situation Iraq finds itself in now.
So what should I, and we as a team, be doing?
It's hard to discern our work as we see that much of the violence in Iraq is sprialing far beyond what we had ever imagined. We are earnestly trying now to find the work God has for us to do for the Iraqis, and trying to be open to the leadings of the Spirit. It's taking a lot of effort on our part to remain open, to not get discouraged, and to keep ourselves pliable and receptive to the sometimes unexpected ways the Spirit moves.
It's evolving, slowly, slowly, and we are trying our best to keep our eyes, ears and hearts open.
We've made good friends here in Sulamaniya, and even were able to spend a day or two taking in some of the beautiful sights here so it hasn't been all work and no play. It's good for us, to be reminded that life still has to have fun, and joy, and beauty even when facing such overwhelming trouble and sadness. It all comes together as a package in life.
In peace and hopeful waiting-