Thursday, December 25, 2014

Reflections on an "empty public square" and lives of action as opposed to belief, attitude and motive

Christmas Day, 2014!
Carols heard from radio and television stations, while carols and readings comprise yet another "candlelight" Christmas Eve service in thousands of churches. Announcing the birth of the Christ Child in a manger in Bethlehem, City of David, has ignited composers, poets and scribes for centuries, bringing to the somewhat mystical birth an accretion of rich gifts, starlit skies, singing angels and star-struck shepherds. The event literally and metaphorically dazzles with the fantastic, long before Cecil B. De Mille ever landed in Hollywood.
It is as if history has haloed this miraculous birth with the most infectious and endearing theatrical images in order to approximate the hope and the joy and the miraculous as a spiritual, religious and cultural injection of those very ingredients into the lives of everyone ever after.
In a world now quite literally worshipping at the altar of money/business/greed/marketing gone global, of course the acquisition of consumer products, "given" to those we love is intended to symbolize our extension of hope, joy and peace into the lives of those whose lives touch ours.
Concentration on the physical, the purchasable, the concrete and the empirical, in short, has replaced what was once considered important, the degree to which one actually integrated the "new birth" into one's spiritual, emotional, ethical and moral and especially one's relational life.
Speaking recently to the 70th Anniversary of the Canadian Council of Churches, one of the longer-running ecumenical organizations in Canada, if not the west generally, Dr. Mary Jo Leddy noted, (as reported in the current Anglican Journal by Andre Forget) that the "public square has been emptied" and that today when one says what one believes, one is greeted with a shrug and a "yeah whatever".
A former member of the Sisters of Zion, a religious order dedicated to the spreading of the Jewish story especially of the holocaust to the Christian world, following the direction of Pope John XXIII, Leddy has been active in the reception and integration of refugees and immigrants into the Canadian culture, and has been instrumental in starting a small non-denominational community, New Way, in Vancouver. Her life has been a testament to "living the faith" especially that part of the faith that commits to the prisoner, the refugee, the victims of injustice and the victims of violence.
Belief and action have always been in tension, in the lives of religious disciples of all religious communities. Theory and praxis were the two words ascribed respectively to those notions in the seminaries and the schools training clergy. In those days, the two were never exclusive, but were dependent on each other. One's belief compelled one to act, in whatever situation one found oneself in, and one's actions compelled one to reflect on those actions, their impact and implications and then to further inform and develop and nurture one's belief.
The spiritual life, as we learned from the Jesuits, comprised a life of "action and reflection"....never one without the other, and certainly not one dedicated solely to heroic acts of rescue in specific demographics, which seems to the picture evolving in a world where only one's actions count, if Leddy's observation bears credence.
Good works, sanctioned by government "tax-exemption" qualification, in the formation of charitable trusts, have mushroomed in the last quarter century. Many of these "non-profits" have extended education, health care and even food and medical supplies to those too destitute to have access to their benefits in their own communities. Some have a religions and faith base, while others are exclusively secular. No one in his or her "right mind" would so much as criticize all the benefits to individual lives that these non-profits have and are continuing to bring. One of the more visible examples is the Clinton Global Initiative, started by former president  Bill Clinton, and now reaching the end of its first decade, brings business and government leaders together each year, to review the impacts of their last year's commitment, and to bring a new commitment to this year's "accounting". The media have naturally focused on its strengths, including the addition of daughter Chelsea, recently minted Oxford Doctorate in Health Care Administration, to the executive of her father's trust. The Clinton Global Initiative brings much of the American "can-do" to the table, along with the American dependence on the acquisition of private capital, as the new agent of social change, in the larger hope and promise that such efforts will also bring new converts to the capitalist system of government, although such a vision would not necessarily be inscribed in the foundations' mission statement.
When one is starving, or dying of some incurable disease, or being victimized by some violent war between parties over which one has no control, the ideology of one's "good Samaritan" is irrelevant, so long as the proffered "help" achieves its target and result. However, the beliefs of the "Samaritan" agents and agencies matter as much as the good works, if we are not to be facing another form of prosletyzing, evangelism, and even the potential of conversion of the recipients of these "gifts of compassion"
Reports continue to flow from many quarters that terror groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas,  ISIS, Al Qaeda and Al Shabbab, and others "use" the concept of "good works" for people whose lives have grown dependent on their "compassion" as weapons of dominance in order to gain support, confidentiality, and even recruits.
Furthermore, the west's history of "generosity" as part of the foreign aid to developing countries is being discouraged by some intimately acquainted and steeped in the dependence and the ennui such beneficence grows among the recipient communities.
It is apparent, from reports from too many quarters that "good works" which originated from sound and compassionate motives has been so perverted into a political, economic and even a military and propaganda weapon, where the lives of people in desperate need are concerned that the world could be in danger of losing clarity and thereby confidence in "good works" that serve both to help those in need, as well as to exonerate public institutions from their legitimate responsibilities.
If Leddy is also right that the public square has been "emptied" (interpreted here that there is no public conscience, and no public debate and discussion and no concurrence of what is the public good) and that only good acts can and do define one's legitimacy, without regard to the motives behind those good works, and without regard to the manipulation to which those good works are being used) then it is high time for all religious, political and thought leaders to re-enter the public square, and to create places and spaces and public support for those spaces and places in which the public square can and will be accommodated.
We cannot afford to make our own decisions about the motives and the purposes behind acts of generosity in regions where the level of education and discernment are so low as to be literally non-existent, and we cannot afford to let others, no matter their political ideology or motives, to seduce innocents with good works, as a mask for broader and less integrous and inauthentic goals, whether those goals  be for their own "aggrandisement" or the aggrandizement of their political agenda.
Interviewing an adult male, whose life was changed forever following the shooting death of his mother by a drunken German soldier in Dordrecht, Holland, whose father then had to turn to an orphanage to feed and shelter both him and his  brother, I learned that the religious demands of his "good shepherd" were incidental and virtually ignored, in order that these two boys could eat and sleep in safety, during the Second World War.
We need to be cautious in our inordinate praise for charity, and to be especially discerning as to the motives of those behind the acts of compassion, especially in a world in which all acts have  become ideological, politically motivated and potentially highly dangerous, especially to those unable to discern the motives of their good Samaritans.
In a culture seduced by the physical, the empirical and the monetary value of all things, those less observable, intangible and ethereal matters such as attitude, motive, belief and ideology matter even more than they might have in a  world less dangerous and less intoxicated by the acquisition and the dissemination of money, even when garbed in a syringe and a vaccine, or when garbed in a bowl of cereal and a glass of milk.
And the public square, in which the nuances of all public actions, including those of non-profits and those of governments and corporations can and will be scrutinized, examined and debated, provides one levening laboratory for such processes, integral to the preservation of the lives of innocent victims.

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