image by sarah mccoy photo

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Earmuffs Against the Shouting

Ours is an era of passions and their unfettered expression. We win more approval for brassy wit than for weighed truth.
We are 20% purpose and 80% optics.
Image result for press conference
Do our passions, turned to words and action, serve our notion of justice or ultimate reconciliation? Are the two even compatible? A consideration of ends might expose the wicked futility of many of our means.

First, we must distinguish two separate, action-shaping goals. Justice seeks congruency: what is rightfully due to the party who perceives a wrong. Lady Justice herself holds scales, presumably to be balanced.
But justice is subject to perception. As any Hatfield or McCoy could tell you, it is a rare party  (though perhaps less rare an individual) that says, “I deserved that. We’re even now.” Any change that satisfies one group will likely elicit a cry of “foul!” from the other. Because when justice is its own end, it leaves its parties as it found them: separate and opposed. Reconciliation, by contrast, orchestrates harmony between two parties. It blurs the lines of divisive identities. And in doing so, it may subvert some of the staunchest demands of justice.

And yet, can reconciliation occur where injustice is unaddressed? I think not. Look to the temporal nature of any post-conflict treaty. Entire branches of political “science” rehash the various ways in which peace has been spelled out, and to what effect: did reparations help? Were punitive measures effective? Must victors fully vanquish to ensure peace, or will conciliatory measures assuage bitterness in the losers?

In the end, all states inch back towards chaos. Says history. Says entropy.

So what can both rectify injustice and facilitate reconciliation? Rainbow unicorn poop? Something more elusive?

Image result for our gang boxingFor Christians, the example is both clear and impossible. Reconciliation of the deepest relational rift in history, that of rebellious man to his God, is effected not (as our egos would prefer) after we have proven our worth or paid our debts or made eloquent speeches. Instead, we were reconciled “while we were enemies.” That is, prior to any balancing of scales. (Romans 5:10)

And though the same passage tells us that reconciliation is achieved through death, it is not the death of the offender, though this too would best satisfy our sensibilities. It is, rather, the death of the offended that bridges the relational chasm. Certainly we can extrapolate a bit. To be a Christian is to follow Christ, and this is the example he has set.

Thus the disrupters whose goal is reconciliation are imbued “with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer.” They are marked by “their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail)

Don’t confuse a long-term hope of peace with the short-term goal of pacification. The latter abets injustice and pressurizes the powder keg. The former, even while creating some inevitable tensions, through humility lays a foundation for harmony. Peaceful coexistence is the fruit of focused labor, not warm and expansive platitudes.

But what does that look like? When, in 1 Corinthians, Paul tells new converts to remain in their station, whether slave or free, he next tells slaves to seek their freedom if the opportunity arises. How do two such commands sit so comfortably side by side? It’s about alignment.

See, for Christians, these seemingly incompatible goals are really just goals in hierarchy. A Christian’s highest purpose, duty, and delight is to glorify God. When a thing is made for a purpose, its most seamless existence will be in pursuit of that aim. Paul himself has experienced this mystery, writing joyfully from a prison long before Martin Luther King, Jr. found comfort in the symmetry of doing the same. Purposeful people put first things first. And, contentment, never the goal, is yet the inevitable byproduct of ordered living.

And so, in following Christ, we seek reconciliation foremost. Do we ignore the demands of justice? Our God is the self-proclaimed God of justice. He embodies and defines it. He loves it. Yet, most of his commands concerning justice are that positively, we should DO it, and negatively, we should not pervert it. There is caution on the subject of seeking our own.

Image result for bridge building
So what this is, really, is not prescriptive. The Bible doesn’t give strategic details on how rightly to seek justice for your gender, your race, your party, your community, yourself. It is more diagnostic. It asks that you approach the righting of wrongs with your priorities aligned. That when you answer the call to fight injustice, you do so in service to the higher call of glorifying God. It’s a longer game. It allows the hope of reconciliation to send up tender shoots through the settling dust.
The bitter truth is that at a certain point, healing always requires the injured party, tremulously, in faith, to open scarred arms wide and receive the estranged as brothers.

From his cell, Martin Luther King, Jr. writes of the necessary step of self-purification as a prerequisite to action. Because he looks ahead not a pace or two to the settling of scores, but far up and over his beleaguered slice of time, into the possibility of “positive peace.”

Though it is painful and awkward. Forgiveness always cuts deeply.

I don’t know if a nation that mistakes volume for righteousness and trumpets a great deal more about rights and differences than about love and commonality, can look inward and diagnose its own motives. But if it does, and finds that it desires only the satisfaction of its complaints, than we can all go down swinging together.

But if it can choose as its final cause reconciliation, then I think right words and actions will fall into their ordered times and justice will itself be just a stone in the bedrock of peace. Then these souls will find their balm.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Depth and Heights

On day fifteen of a grueling drive across thirteen states, with one hour left to our destination, my husband turned the jeep off onto a country lane. We had split the kids between our cars and I assumed the one in his backseat was begging for a potty break. The rollicking greenery falling away to every side seemed unlikely to offer up a Chevron or a Dunkin Donuts, I thought. But soon my phone’s map adjusted to show that this was no detour, but a route, a reward of pastoral cruising to end our Interstate sojourn.

The girls shrieked with unbridled delight. “Up, up, up, up, up,” they crescendoed up each crest, and down each hill we rolled amid squealing laughter. Geronimo bubbled over, exclaiming things like, “Look guys, I can see the whole world!” and “I’m so exciting! I am riding on a chocolate rainbow!” (This is highest metaphorical praise from a newly four-year-old.) Songbird added, “It’s exhilarating!”
 And it was. We had been privileged to watch the changing landscapes of desert to scrubland to bayou to woodland over the past two weeks, but these hills were straight out of a Little Golden Book illustration, all farm and forest in swells of green and dappled sunlight.

I couldn’t help but contrast this belly-deep joy with the dully pacifying effect of trail mix and donuts, solitaire apps and tablet movies that I had been tossing back at intervals to break up the monotony of sitting in a five-point harness for 3,474 miles. Those were hits of cotton candy to this feast, saccharine powder to this fresh summer peach. Something to numb versus something to enliven.

How much of what is designed for children (or to keep children unobtrusive) can never sate, but keeps them discontentedly lapping for more? Here was something that drew in their minds, senses, and imaginations with a breadth and depth only found in a real, live world.
The saccharine offerings of modernity leech away our joy in real things because real things are interactive. They require something of us in response. And though that engagement is itself a joy, the easy passivity of watching and receiving images is…easier. It lulls little brains with dopamine hits.

And so it takes radical, daily decisions to protect our inborn delight in the world from succumbing to the mind-numbing flashes and bangs coming at us. And so it becomes countercultural to engage delightedly in the real world and its study; children who play Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh because history thrills them and roll out of bed to do extra math pages for the joy of accomplishment are weird. And so their interests appear at best boring, perplexing, and at worst pretentious.

Children and parents who each day choose to revel in realness are still susceptible to the mindless pleasure of the saccharine. I love Tennyson and Netflix. My girls love Shakespeare and, heaven help us, Sofia the First. But when cultivated purposefully, our fickle minds will too crave the deep satisfaction of the real.

If we can imagine it.

Before we can purpose to transcend the mundane expectations of our time, the two-dimensional aspirations of GPAs and SATs and a house in the suburbs and an Employee of the Month plaque, we need to imagine something radically different. We need to see our Parnassus outlined behind the clouds before we can try to plant our feet on its base.

When once we have conceived of those heights, we will see the cycles and stories and relationships of this world as living metaphors for the wholeness of truth, and we will never again be content to be lulled into futility. There are mountains to climb.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Peaceful Sleep of Babes

I have one child who every night, by her very positioning, exudes a blissful sense of security. When I pop in to turn out her reading lamp, she is lying on her back, face towards the ceiling, snoring softly, arms flung wide as if to embrace the night sky above her roof. It strikes me every night as the most confidently vulnerable position a body could choose in which to surrender consciousness. And it reminds me every night how few children sleep with such fearless abandon.

I say this to establish that while my philosophical argument in the face of global tension may sound callous, I am not. That while you or I might personally lay down our lives for a stranger’s child, I don’t think America has the moral footing to make such statements collectively. And that is an important distinction.

It starts with Rene Descartes. In developing a mechanistic vision of the body, he was unable to account physically for the soul and so cast personhood as a separate phenomenon: a “ghost in the machine.” Odds are, whatever else you believe, you assume some kind of mind/body dualism that stems from this notion and affects how you interpret the world. The philosophical end of this split is a fact/value dichotomy that dominates modern thinking. Things we can study empirically go in the lower story of facts, and everything else is relegated to the upper story of values. This is the basis of the dogma of relativism.

Yet there is no one on earth who can live as though this is true. Because it doesn’t reflect reality, it tears asunder the cohesive nature of our true world and ourselves. We live in tension.

And nowhere does this become more depressingly apparent than when a nation suddenly rises in moral outrage against atrocities. Because by what measure can we rationally call anything atrocious?

I don’t know (and I have a MA in the subject) exactly what the right theoretical role of a hegemon is in morally policing the world, or how the rights of individuals and the rights of sovereign nations are rightly weighed in international law. Maybe nobody does.

But I do know that in embracing the cognitive dissonance of a fractured reality, we have surrendered our standing to make any big moral statements whatsoever.

The thing is, most moral or even theological frameworks are attempts to describe the real world. They exist to fit with reality. Christianity goes so far as to beg for a good fact check. Its explicit basis is in historical fact and it claims outright that if those historical claims are not verifiably, objectively true, then its entirety is null and void. While I don’t know that any other religion is so forthright, most purport to describe reality. 
Yet such is our devotion to empirical knowledge that we forget that knowledge is not so limited in its sourcing. What we find is that our modern desperation to shut belief systems into an upper story, divorced from physical reality, cannot be lived out rationally. Truly, most of the vociferous denouncements of “values” attempting to weigh in on issues of fact, are aimed at religion. Because there are broad moral statements being made with impunity in all other realms.

Think of the rhetoric of most politically active groups. When we state that kill shelters, rape, racism, child abuse, puppy mills, sexism, and environmental pollution are wrong, we do not mean that we personally dislike them. We do not mean that it is a value divorced from physical reality. We mean that these things are universally, unequivocally, wrong for everybody. If they were values, existing in their own sphere, then the guy with the dog fighting ring could say, “Oh, this is ok for me. That’s my truth.” And we would say, “Carry on, brother! Do what seems right to you!” But we don’t. Because whatever we say, however we cling to Cartesian dualism, we all know deep down that it doesn’t fit reality.

Our sense of justice may be shaped by current cultural dynamics, but the fact that it exists implies that it reflects a reality, that justice and injustice exist outside of the individual mind.

And all of this is to say that our collective cognitive dissonance is thrown into relief every time something is so egregious that we all pretend we weren’t just saying “you are your own truth” and instead together shout, “Stop this evil!” 

We are right to try to stop evil. We are wrong to pretend it is relative. So long as we fight to keep knowledge limited to the realm of empiricism, we will live with the tension of a life disjointed. But for those for whom knowledge forms an integrated whole, a Matrix-like beauty, the tension dissipates. In the face of evil, our hearts still break. We cry with the afflicted and rage against the oppressors. But amidst the tumult, we sleep the peaceful sleep of babes.