Silent Witness


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   The difficulty lies in knowing what to think, despite all that has been said about how so many of us feel in regard to the events that took place on Capitol Hill earlier this week. They were unprecedented events, shocking, existentially disturbing.

            The attempted destruction of democracy; was it the end of civilisation as we know it, or the beginning of the end of the world, as some Christians will be thinking. “Bring it on” the millenarians among them will be saying. Or has Yeats’s ‘blood dimmed tide’, briefly ‘loosed’ on Wednesday, having built tsunami-like over the past four years whilst most of us were in denial, been stemmed? If so, by whom?

            Because the question all this obliges us to face is; are there in fact checks and balances at work that somehow re-calibrate the off-the-cuff decisions of a megalomaniac in such a way as to avoid the catastrophic? In time, no doubt, we shall learn the answer. Meanwhile, or at least until this week, many of us have continued to believe that the democracies we take for granted are indestructible, that there are always checks and balances, or discreet individuals, civil servants of sorts, quietly managing the day to day affairs of the country, so that World War III is avoided simply by removing a crucial communiqué from the desk of Donald Trump before he has the chance to see it and fire off a tweet that would bring us to the brink of destruction. Or, then again, perhaps there are not.

            But Wednesday’s coup makes even these simplistic questions more opaque and therefore more worrying. Were there discreet individuals oiling the works on Trump’s side too? Why did the National Guard take so long to get there? Why the shaming discrepancy between the way his mob was dealt with by the police in comparison to the military operation that was called in to brutally suppress the Black Lives Matter demonstration? Were the police, understaffed and seemingly badly trained, set up by other discreet individuals from within a now sophisticated and well co-ordinated conspiracy theory movement, manipulated like puppets by their top man, who was safely out of harm’s way, watching all that was going on from his TV screen in White House?

            All of this is to say that small people working behind the scenes, if there were such people and I think it is not unreasonable to suppose that there were, along with a parallel phalanx of clever social media operatives, can turn the blood dimm’d tide. How then, is it to be turned back?

            Joe Biden will do everything he can, as will his vice-president, advisors and supporters. But they can only work within the constraints of their professional limits and there are only so many hours in the day, and there is so much to do. But it is the turning of the blood dimm’d tide that must take absolute precedence over anything else, or at least before anything else can begin to be effected, including putting in place a national disciplined plan of action for halting the exponential growth of Covid 19. So who will be the ‘little people’, the undercover ‘civil servants’ who will work now for a righteous leader, with the same discretion and determination of those who perhaps worked for his predecessor?

             They will not be people in his immediate surroundings, although some may be. The vast majority of them will be completely anonymous. They will be you and me.

            There will be no visible road map for us to follow, no plan of action, no call to take to the streets or launch social media petitions. What there will be is an imperative to first return in silence to the memory of these past days and ‘stand’ in it, stand in it silently. By that I mean hold steady in it. Remember it in its shocking and brutal reality. Refuse to deny or forget it. Refuse to hate the participants. Regret deeply what it has done, especially if you were a participant yourself and then, especially if you are an American, remember that America calls itself ‘one nation under God’, so do this standing and remembering under God.

            God’s time is not linear. Moments in the past, even the very recent past, are redeemed and thereby opened up to new redemptive possibilities by the way we choose to remember them and then think of them in the present and by the way we all take responsibility for them. This is about acknowledging wrong from deep within ourselves, whether or not we were party to that wrong or complicit in it, whether we tacitly condoned it or went along with, or were perhaps indifferent to it. Indifference has played as big a part in the loosing of the ‘blood dimm’d tide’ as any amount of conspiracy theory rhetoric. Indifference is the wrong kind of silence when it comes to crises of the kind we have just witnessed.

            But, ironically, it is now silence that we most need, a different kind of silence. The silence of a call to collective prayer and repentance for which we must all take responsibility. First, we need to find repentance in ourselves, a place where we can be silent before God, bringing to mind the events of the past few days in the way I have described and then, for churches and people who pray, asking through the appropriate authorities, to be allowed to physically stand on Capitol Hill, silently holding candles signifying hope, light coming out of darkness, signifying repentance before God. The world will be standing with you in that hope and in the spirit of repentance that it requires.

Season of Hope

We need something more than optimism in these difficult and dangerous times.

            I read this morning of a mother in Hong Kong who is taking her daughter out of school. It seems that the Chinese authorities are tightening their grip on teachers and on what can or can’t be taught to children, especially in regard to the concept of freedom and the State.

            Then I read of all the things Donald Trump could do, or is doing, to de-stabilise global relations and undermine fragile peace accords in some of the most dangerously volatile areas of the world. As he sets about sabotaging his successor’s job, some pretty frightening questions come to mind.

            If, for example, given his power and his mood, he chooses to attack Iran, what will the global consequences be? And what about the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which is fast becoming a reality? If that happens, it will leave a power vacuum ready for the Islamic State or the Taliban to fill, and from which to operate. And if Trump continues to avoid paying real attention to Iraq, Sunni extremists in that country will be indebted to him.

            And what about climate change? Global temperatures have sky rocketed and the rising trend would appear to be unstoppable, despite all of our best individual efforts to eat less red meat, heat our houses in ways that are not detrimental to the environment, switch to electric or hybrid cars, or cycle more.

            And what about Covid and the social ills that come with it? It’s unlikely to go away in time for Christmas.

            The general picture is a bleak one. There are probably many people who are choosing, metaphorically speaking, to hide under the duvet, hoping perhaps to wake up to a new and better world. Who can blame them? After all, things like Civil Wars and coups don’t happen in America – do they? Covid should be a thing of the past by the summer – shouldn’t it?

            How do we live with these questions without giving in to collective despair?

             I think one thing we need to start doing is to move from plucky optimism to well-founded hope. We have tried optimism for so long and it has not really proved up to the job of sustaining us in these critical times. We’re thrown about by what’s trending on fake news, with little time or energy to seek out in-depth coverage of events by reliable sources and, in any case, we are not sure where those sources are, or how to get an objective ‘take’ on anything. Objectivity requires time and a degree of confidence about facts and history. I would hazard a guess that not many of us have that kind of confidence.

            So perhaps what’s needed is a different kind of confidence, the kind of humble confidence that grows the more time you spend in prayer. By prayer I mean just letting God be God in whatever situation most concerns us, giving space for God in it, rather than looking for answers and solutions. It’s the space we make in ourselves for God that changes things.

             What I have learned, especially since the outbreak of Covid, is that God is already in the mess and pain, and very much in our anxieties. He has bound himself to both the causes and the effects of the ills we bring upon ourselves. He has bound himself so closely to our fears, to the terrible realities that could yet come about, that they are somehow held in him.

            The work of prayer, which is vital for the survival of the world and of each one of us, consists in constantly returning to that place where God is. We find the place in the centre of our true selves, or what is often called ‘the ground of our being’.

            It would be tempting to think of this returning to centre as a form of escapism, like hiding under the duvet. But it is quite the opposite. Prayer is about turning into reality, not away from it. It is about turning into the the reality which God sees in all the complex and often dangerous situations with which we are faced at the moment. Prayer involves contemplating the fragility of human beings with an untroubled gaze, and acknowledging our flawed nature, which makes a person especially vulnerable when they are driven by the need to hold on to power.

            But the reality we face into has to do with the ‘deep down goodness of things’, to paraphrase the poet G.M. Hopkins[1]. This deep down goodness is the Divine that is already in us and which overcomes the destructive forces of darkness, because its essence is light. Darkness cannot overcome light. When we set our minds and hearts to prayer, we are engaging with this pure light, drawing it into the world’s conflicts and into our own fears.

[1] ‘There lives the dearest freshness deep down things’ G.M. Hopkins God’s Grandeur

When Will There Be Good News?

The heart of the post I’ve just written: Our humanity is the spirit that makes us the persons we are. It is the line we draw between right and wrong, wisdom rather than cleverness, compassion rather than pragmatism.

The first thing I read or listen to tends to set my emotional course for the day ahead. By this I mean that whatever bit of news first appears on my screen, and my instinctive reaction to it, will, in some measure, define all my other emotions for the day, along with the thoughts and decisions which these emotions will affect.

Today, it happened to be William Bell’s article in the Comment section of the current issue of the Church Times. Bell’s is a factually sustained account of why we still ought to feel a deep sense of outrage at the ongoing injustices being perpetrated in regard to the Palestinians by the continuing appropriation of their land, and denial of their basic human rights, specifically in the context of East Jerusalem. Yesterday, it was the murder of two young Cambridge graduates by a crazed individual wielding a knife during a seminar designed to bring people together through shared learning.

Many of those who read this post will have experienced similar feelings to mine in regard to the news of the day, and possibly a degree of helplessness in the face of all this evil. But does it have to be like this? Might it be possible to turn our feelings of helplessness and anger to good use, or to ‘convert’ them? I understand this ‘converting’ as a kind of composting, as when biodegradable material is sufficiently concentrated and rendered down that it becomes a nutrient, a source of life and growth for the soil it feeds.

Perhaps our feelings of anger in regard to the events going on around us, not to mention our distrust of politicians and increasing disillusion with the political system itself, need to be rendered down and converted in a similar way. Positive anger may not always translate into writing newspaper articles, but it can fuel hope. For one thing it strengthens resistance, as it has been proved to do in wartime situations when there is a common enemy to defeat. Resistance is not just about defending oneself against danger. It is about being proactive in the face of evil, a proactivity which both defines and tests our humanity.

Our humanity is really the spirit that makes us the persons we are. You could also describe this spirit as ‘will’ or ‘conscience’. It reveals itself as the line we draw between right and wrong, or which defines those situations that require wisdom rather than cleverness, compassion rather than pragmatism. In politics, mistakes are made when decisions taken by politicians are the product of delusion, because they are self-serving or part of a wider power-mongering agenda, as is the case with Trump’s support of Israeli settlements.

The human spirit learns through wisdom to discern motive. So the human spirit is tested not only in how a person or nation responds to the evil being done to others, and to the duplicity and lies of the powerful, but in how that person lives a ‘just’ life, to use a rather biblical expression. Living a just life will involve anger, but it will need to be ‘converted’ anger, anger which is fuelled by compassion and the desire for wisdom and understanding. For the person of faith, this particular kind of understanding, the understanding which ‘bears fruit that will last’ (John 15:16) begins in the life of the spirit.

There is nothing nebulous or abstract about this life. On the contrary, it is a conscious ongoing and deliberate willing of ourselves into any given set of circumstances that are affecting people’s lives. Right now, the greatest of these, and the one with the most enduring consequences, is the accelerated rate of climate change. Getting into this situation, from that place of wisdom and compassion, involves a willingness to become, in a sense, those whose lives are most affected by extreme and long-term changes in climate. It is not hard to imagine who they are. We read about them every day. When we become who they are, when we see their faces from within our own spirit, we begin the work of resistance, because it is in this place of deep compassion that anger becomes ‘converted’, and so changes the way we think and the way we do things.

If we remain in this place, at a sub-conscious level, we will find ourselves questioning our every action, insofar as any given action is likely to make the world a safer or happier place for other human beings and other species. Small actions count most because they are within the reach of all of us. How long to leave the hot tap running, whether to drive when, with better planning, we could easily have walked or cycled, opting for loose vegetables rather than packaged, or, better still, growing your own if you have a bit of garden space.

All these decisions are made in and by the human spirit, but they are only made possible by an encounter with the face of Love itself.

Mouse Habits

‘When we click through the news on our screens we experience it in the immediacy of the present moment. We also experience it in our loneliness. The loneliness of such moments feeds the fear we carry around in ourselves, the fear that comes with a sense of our disconnectedness from some indefinable life-source.’ Excerpt from my latest book In Such Times: Reflections On Living With Fear

‘Mouse’ is not a bad name for the gizmo which connects us to our computer screens. It is a symbol of the hunted, but also of the one who hunts, or searches, indiscriminately picking up whatever life sustaining morsels lie to hand. As ‘hunters’ we are in control, believing that the world lies open to us, that there is an abundance of choice out there. As ‘hunted’ we are the victims of the fears and uncertainties which this spurious freedom appears to give us.

I think of my own screen habits which have deteriorated of late, both in the amount of time I spend ostensibly reading things, when I am in fact simply grazing. I remember, rather wistfully, my pre-social media days.

As one of many millions who spend a fair bit of time online, I’ve thought about screen habits quite a bit of late, first in regard to how, if at all, they affect the way I think about what is going on in the world, and what I choose to watch, and why I watch those things. Most of the time it’s the news. I feel helpless in the face of the destruction of the planet and the evasive tactics of the powerful who benefit from that destruction. I am horribly fascinated by the antics being played out in parliament, though I am growing bored with those of Donald Trump and with much of the competing rhetoric surrounding the Brexit issue. Recently, I’ve been drawn to things that somehow ring positive – stories of heroic beach rescues, or of the devotion of animals which defies understanding but brings hope.

As I live in the country, I’m fairly well acquainted with the hunting habits of mice. You can be pretty certain that for every one mouse you see scurrying across the kitchen floor – even a reasonably clean kitchen floor – there will be at least ten more lurking behind the pipes or nesting in the cavity insulation. They work in teams but seem to hunt alone, a little like the computer mouse. We hunt alone, but there are millions of us gravitating to the same things.

This being said, I don’t think the solitary hunter mouse experiences existential loneliness. The idea hasn’t even crossed her mind. The solitary rodent is not in denial about anything in particular. She has enough to do, just obeying her nest-making and other survival instincts.

This is where we, when we are in ‘hunter mouse’ mode, differ from those little grey rodents. Much of the time we spend on computers is spent in a form of denial. We hunt to get away from our loneliness. We are in denial about the isolationism which our freedom to access information as events unroll has brought us. We are also in denial of the loneliness we experience in it. Though anxious about the way the world is going, our anxiety seems to return us to ourselves most of the time.

What we are really looking for, then, is something that will lead us out of ourselves and into a place of commonality, a feeling and desire for the common good. Deep down, I think many of us are watching out for something resembling sacrificial love, especially in the sphere of politics and leadership.

Watching the news, or surfing it, gives you a sense of the kind of battle being waged between the forces of good which are to do with sacrificial love, and the arrogance and self interest which ultimately leads to loneliness and isolationism.

Watching the news becomes a matter of surfing for the opinion which best chimes with your own, even when your own is shaped from ‘gut’ feeling rather than a balanced seeking out of the truth (a now completely devalued word) and of what best serves a nation. When glimmers of love emerge in the political arena, as they do from time to time, defying the arrogance and contempt of some for those they are there to serve, we recognise them for what they are with a kind of deep sense of joy – but not the triumphalist joy that comes with ‘winning’ or having the last word.

If the whole Brexit debacle has served any purpose at all, it will at least have revealed that it is possible for politicians to act with integrity in the matter of sacrificial love. In other words, to put their consciences and the needs of the country ahead of their careers. The same holds true in all public spheres, including that of the Church, where integrity and sacrificial love is required from time to time from leaders. Much of the time, the personal sacrifices that they make go unnoticed, or unremembered.

But they are remembered at a different level. In the case of Brexit, their story will no doubt define history, so they will be remembered by future generations. But hope does not begin and end at its source, with the person or people who are courageous and competent enough to put sacrificial love at the service of the country. It gives hope to the millions of us ‘hunting’ desperately for politicians we can trust and for a future we can believe in.