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Friday, 23 April 2010

Ashes and Dust, Dust and Ashes

Once again we see how fragile it all is. A volcano erupts in a far-off land – and the disruption to our well-ordered lives is immediate. Hundreds of thousands of UK citizens are stranded away from home, the skies of Europe empty, anxieties take off about the toxicity of the air we are breathing, schools and hospitals are unable to function, families are separated and lives are inconvenienced, there is annoyance and sometimes distress – and the vulnerability of our casual dependence on air travel is revealed in stark and discomforting ways. But nobody has died – this is not a tragedy.

The fantasy of omnipotence that modern life promotes – that it’s possible (within reason) to do anything we want, any time we want it – has been challenged over this last week. Through air travel and the internet and satellite communications technology we come to rely on the experience of inter-connectivity: that we live within a vast web of being in which we can be anywhere at any time, connecting to anyone, that goods and ideas and news and we ourselves can transcend the boundaries of locality and space. That we can (in effect) be like the gods of old - all-knowing, all-seeing, ever-present, not restricted by inhabiting a physical body that sets limits to what is possible. (Yet simultaneously we also become more and more dependent on basic resources like oil and electricity to keep the whole illusion going).

These last 20-30 years of extraordinary technological development is affecting our psyche in ways we still barely comprehend. As ‘virtual reality’ becomes integrated into our everyday down-to-earth reality, the boundaries of who we and what the limits are on what we can do are become blurred. This leads to deep inner confusion and disorientation – for our consciousness of what it means to be a human being is changing, subtly, indefinably.

Yet in the midst of this rapid transformation into new ways of living, old ways of thinking remain. I’ve been fascinated by the language used to describe the volcano’s activity. A few days into these events, I heard the journalist for Channel 4 News – usually the most solid and unmelodramatic of news outlets – open his report of the still-erupting volcano with a description of how "angry" the volcano still was; and then immediately his voiceover went on to talk about the effects this "act of God" was having on stranded tourists. And in the Observer this past weekend one commentator who had recently visited the volcano wrote of the privilege on a recent visit to Iceland of being in the presence of the volcano where he could "feel the breath of the beast and hear it stir".

Now of course all this anthropomorphism is on one level just journalistic colour – a reaching for a familiar metaphorical language to describe what is happening or being experienced. And yet it harks back to a way of thinking that suggests to me how thin is the carapace of rationality in which we wrap our consciousness.

We know volcanoes are not angry beasts and we know that they aren’t controlled by a vengeful (or playful )‘God’ – but perhaps we turn so quickly to this atavistic language because when a volcano does erupt, and the smooth ordering of our lives is radically disrupted, we glimpse how little control we have over the deep life of the planet; that the movement of mountains and seas and tectonic plates defies all our collective ingenuity as a species, that all our conquering of time and space and all our great civilisational achievements in science and technology fade into insignificance (and impotence) in relation to the random and meaningless activity of the planet’s own continual going-on-being.

At an unconscious level an event like this eruption puts us back in touch with an infantile helplessness that exists dormant within us all. And our language starts to reflect that mode of thinking – that our deep wishes for a safe and well-ordered, well-contained life are somehow under threat from powerful but arbitrary forces around us.

***
One of the unexpected consequences of the suspension of air travel was that many world leaders were unable to attend the funerals in Poland of those who had died in the catastrophic plane crash - this was a tragedy – near Smolensk on April 12th. The terrible echoing irony of the disaster hardly needs spelling out: the Polish President and nearly 100 senior figures in Polish society were on their way to Katyn to commemorate the Soviet massacre there of 22,000 Polish military officers and intellectual leaders during the Second World War. (The Soviets hid the crimes of Stalin’s secret police by blaming the Nazis for the murders, a lie that British and American governments colluded with after the War).

One of the deaths that I found particularly haunting to hear about was that of the sculptor Wojciech Seweryn who had campaigned for years for increased official awareness of Russian responsibility: his father had been murdered at Katyn in 1940 and he had joined this flight alongside the other Polish dignitaries in order to pay homage to his dead father’s memory.

Only silence is a suitable response to this. Or maybe - in extremis – Shakespeare’s extraordinary words from King Lear; ‘As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport'.

Let me finish by sharing with you parts of a letter sent by Rabbi Burt Schuman from the Progressive Jewish community in Warsaw, which offers a personal perspective on what this tragedy has meant:

Not only did we lose President Kaczynski and his wife on that fateful plane crash yesterday … but much of Poland’s political, economic, military, and diplomatic and religious leadership, including the chiefs of all branches of the military, the presidential chaplain and army chaplain, the deputy foreign minister and other foreign ministry staff, the president of the National Bank, the head of the National Security office, leaders of the Institute for National Memory, the head of the Olympic Committee, the civil rights commissioner, officials of the Ministry of Culture, the Deputy Speaker of the parliament, several presidential aides and former three members of parliament. In addition, the leaders of veterans’ groups, the last President of the Polish Government in Exile and several heroes of the Polish resistance also perished in that flight. Many of these individuals were people that I either I had met and conversed with or had seen at official functions, adding to my own personal sense of shock and grief.

… these leaders were en route to the Katyn forest at the invitation of the Russian government to observe the 70th anniversary of the hideous massacre of tens of thousands of Polish officers, among them approximately 900 Jewish officers … As Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has eloquently stated this is the greatest tragedy t o befall post-war Poland… Many in our community lost close personal friends. Moreover, the Jews of Poland have lost a great friend and advocate in President Kaczynski’s who not only spoke often and eloquently about the Jewish contribution to Polish history, on many occasions, including commemorations at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial and this past summer at the 65thanniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto this past summer… Moreover, he demonstrated that support in deeds as well as words as in his financial support for the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and his visit to Israel on the heels of the Second Lebanon War…


A bit of perspective on evennts does not, I suppose, do us much harm.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

'Crisis? What Crisis?'

It is obvious that the Catholic Church is currently immersed in controversy and soul-searching. Accusations that a small number of clergy, in several countries, have in the past been guilty of sexual abusing children and other vulnerable young people are serious sources of shame for the Church. And the extent of the cover-up of these crimes is also coming to light. But this material is hardly new. It joins a larger body of evidence that within hierarchical, authority-laden institutions – be they religious or secular, be it staff in care homes or teachers in public schools or adults in that supposedly benign institution we call ‘the family’ – violence and cruelty can be (and always has been) perpetrated by authority figures against the weak and the powerless.

Priests and nuns may have a vocation, or may be seen by others as having some special ‘sanctity’ attached to them – but they are (of course) as psychologically complex as any of the rest of us. In my experience, the battle in the human soul between our creative and destructive impulses, our loving and hateful feelings, is never over for anyone. And in spite of what people might want from their clergy, ‘religious’ figures are not exempt from instinctual human desires and conflicts.

So on the one hand this latest furore about the Catholic Church is part of a much wider picture about the corrupting nature of institutions where authority becomes authoritarian. And this is as relevant to Orthodox Jewish institutions and families as to Catholic ones. And I dare say there are Muslim equivalents. But abuse of power in religious settings seems to shock us more – perhaps because the rhetoric of monotheism is full of words like love and compassion and justice.

Yet we really shouldn’t be shocked. When a religion has at its centre an authority figure – otherwise known as ‘God’ – who Himself doesn’t like challenges to his authority – "You shall have no other gods before Me" – then we can predict trouble ahead. Those who see themselves as speaking in God’s name have a potent image to draw upon when they say ‘Do what I tell you’. To think you are speaking in the name of an all-powerful deity is a dangerous belief to hold. It can justify any action you take. If God is always right and I am acting as God’s representative here on earth then it is easy to find oneself caught up in an (unconscious) omnipotent fantasy that I am always right.

So this identification with a divine power who is uncompromising in saying what is right and what is wrong – and in dictating what is forbidden and what has to happen – this unconscious identification will be used to ‘justify’ cruelty and terror and transgression. Whether it is sexual violence or domestic violence or institutional violence, this enactment by individuals of their own instinctual need to exercise power mirrors – and draws upon - monotheism’s own strands of hostility, aggression, and intolerance of dissent . And all monotheisms contain plenty of that kind of stuff, mixed in with the more benign strands of faith that believers love to quote.

So I’m never shocked by evidence of crimes by so-called ‘religious’ people. It so happens that in his career the present Pope, Benedict XVI, has been rigorous in investigating cases of clergy who have been accused of sexual abuse. But what is new on this occasion is the way in which these current accusations – of crimes and the cover-up of crimes – has been taken up by the world’s press. They now have a perfect weapon with which to beat an institution that ‘preaches love but practices abuse’ – as if all priests are secret perverts. This is never stated openly but is the subtext to much of the reporting I have read. It’s as if there is almost a kind of schadenfreude at work: ‘You claim to be so holy and good, but look at what you are really like...now (about time!) it’s our turn to hold you responsible, to make you feel guilty ...’

Is this the revenge of the secular press (whose own authority is fading in the internet era) on the enviable religious authority of the Church? Is a secret, maybe unconscious, battle taking place – can the power of the print media bring down the power of the Church?

Take, for example, a recent article headlined ‘Pope’s preacher says attacks on Catholics are like antisemitism’(the Guardian, April 3rd) At an Easter service at St.Peter’s - attended by the Pope and other Catholic leaders - Father Raniero Cantalamessa had quoted a letter he’d received from a Jewish friend – note this, from a Jewish friend – which contained the remark that ‘The passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt reminds me of the more shameful aspects of antisemitism.’ This had caused, so it was reported, a storm of further controversy amongst Abuse Victims’ groups and Jewish representatives, particularly in Germany, whose shock and horror at this remark were duly recorded.

Now I may have some lack of moral imagination here, or a real failure of moral intelligence, but I am rather puzzled by this reported outrage. What the ‘Jewish friend’ seems to have been pointing out was that just as antisemitism is stereotyping and prejudice expressed against a whole group, so the current antagonism being expressed in the media towards the collective authority of Catholic priests and the hierarchy of the Church and the person of Benedict himself and the institutional practice of celibacy, etc , etc, is a form of prejudice - for it condemns the group, the collective institution and its ways of life, for the crimes (and sins) of some individuals.

So isn’t the analogy of antisemitism rather a useful one? Yes, it might be rather ironic from a historical perspective for a leading Catholic to use this particular analogy. But isn’t Father Cantalamessa’s inference a legitimate, benign and even illuminating perspective? - that a form of collective scapegoating is happening in the attacks on the Catholic Church that is similar in its psychological mechanism to attacks on Judaism as a religion or Jews as a collective group?

Sadly, a Catholic spokesman felt the need to issue a statement afterwards saying that the preacher wasn’t speaking as a Vatican official and that such comparisons ‘lead to misunderstandings and is not an official position of the Catholic Church.’ The problem is that for those who are so minded – the intolerant, the insecure, the paranoid, the self-regarding narcissist - anything someone else says can ‘lead to misunderstandings’.

Maybe silence is, after all, a virtue to be cultivated.