In this (spirituality) realm, there is a new kind of freedom, where it is more rewarding to explore than to reach conclusions, more satisfying to wonder than to know, and more exciting to search than to stay put. (Margaret J. Wheatley, in Diarmuid O. Murchu, Reclaiming Spirituality, New /York, Crossroads, p. 1)
Far from pasting an ethical and electrical-stimulating patch onto our hearts, in order to neutralize all sinister motives, attitudes, perceptions and self-destructive tendencies, we are left to wrestle with the seemingly surreal benchmarks detailed in the Christian ethics summary from the last segment in this series.
Men, from my experience, have as much aversion to conversation about their own spirituality as they do about their emotions. Even within the narrow confines of the institutional church, men generally focus on the balance sheet, revenues, costs and then they adjudge the spectre of whether or not to remain open on the basis of those criteria. When confronting the most conflicted questions and tensions that emerge between and among parishioners and between laity and clergy, they frequently revert to the mediation/reconciliation/social justice guidelines of the secular culture in their best approach, or more likely, defer to their personal favourite in their more narrow and constricted manner. And while these processes have some potential to shift the dialogue into new and more hopeful territory, the fundamental attitudes of each individual remain paramount regardless of the chosen process.
An anecdote from Ruth White’s A Spiritual Diary for Saints and Not-so-Saintly, might open this reflection:
Rest in Peace
A stubborn old man plastered the outside walls of his hotel with signs. He was declaring war on the city fathers. Today as I passed down his street, I observed a freshly painted message hanging there. It read:
“Rest in Peace.”
I wondered who was resting. Did the old man give up in his long running battle for survival? Did he win, or did je just give up?
Perhaps I will never know. There is one thing I am very sure about—someone lost! It is even possible, as with most arguments, that no one is resting in peace.Peace is not the child of bitterness and hate. When one person sets out to destroy another, regardless of the cause, it always results in someone being injured. In order for one to win, the other must lose. (Op.Cit., p. 95)
Today, our vernacular terms this idea a zero-sum game.
The point at which any ethical principle becomes operative is the point at which a precipitating and offensive event, statement, action prompts and provokes a response. Victims, especially, are prone to lash out, almost involuntarily responding to that “fight/flight” response, in a culture that literally and metaphorically holds wimps (those who do not retaliate) in contempt. There is a corollary to this truth: the most likely person to inflict an offensive blow, especially one designed to “destroy” another, is the person who is most frightened and unable or unwilling to restrain his vengeance. This paradox, however, remains one of the over-riding and often hidden mysteries operating in a culture dominated by masculinity, in its most neurotic model.
Ours is a culture that celebrates conflict that “wipes out” an opponent, and then cheers the destroyer/terminator as a role model for others who are or will experience injustice themselves. In Canada, professional hockey has the most prominent, visible and recognized stage for this meme. The dockets in the civil courts, too, are filled with cases documenting offenses based on an injustice unaddressed, and needing a outside authority to settle the dispute. Employers, too, are increasingly deploying a strategy that is best summed up in the words of a former supervisor: “Do you think we can get him to resign, if we overload his workload?” Implicit in that rhetorical question is the notion that “firing” that individual would require both time and serious financial costs, but having him/her withdraw silently is clean and simple and cost-free. It is not incidental to note that there is no “requirement” to provide “cause” for the elimination, for the simple reason that the resignation is uncontested.
Other equally sinister and too often secret and thereby anonymous “exclusions” or destructions or character assassinations are happening while these keys are being tapped, with the target of the attack unsuspecting both its emergence and its author.
The political culture has become so violent, virulent and saturated with radioactive words like treason, spy, killing, spilling out of the poisoned fountain of the Oval Office, that ordinary people have and will continue to take violent actions motivated by and “given cover” by the bile flowing from that very fountain.
So, attempting to inculcate, teach, model, apply and ‘garden’ and ‘greenhouse’ even a modest ethic is one of the most, complex and trying and predicated-on-failure of the social, cultural, educational, and political enterprises in any culture.
Hourly, we read and listen to stories of individuals who cross ethical, legal/criminal and constitutional lines, only to be followed by those courageous voices in the wilderness that has become our raging climatic and political ethos. Whistleblower protection could prove to be the single “linchpin” protecting the U.S. political institutions from permanent erosion. Nevertheless, in the prevailing public dialogue, the word “systems” plays such a prominent part in our mostly failed and failing attempts to deal with “miscreancy” (villainy) at all levels.
Just this morning, David Ignatius, appearing on Morning Joe on MSNBC, outlined his country’s and his paper’s requirement that the Saudi prince, ben Salman, provide assurances that “systems are in place” that will prevent any recurrence of murder of his colleague, Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul one year ago today. And we have evolved to a point where we expect “systems” to ensure our safety, our security, and the enforcement of the ethical, legal principles on which our culture has been established. Every time a “system” operates, carrying out a task, a responsibility, a professional process, in an encounter with other systems, the purpose of that encounter is most likely to be an attempt either to prevent some future injustice, or to impose a sanction for a previous crossing of some boundaries.
Within the bowels of each system, however, both the knowledge of and the sanctions for not executing the details of a “system” of rules, regulations, mandates reside within the “person” of those working within the system. Compounding the dissemination of those regulations, and a commitment to their execution, are so many factors as to render the process of the dissemination, assimilation and prosecution of the system’s rules fraught with not merely synapses but volcanic obstruction. And the size and virulence of the obstruction are highly dependent on the level of trust and respect for the very system that has brought the rules and regulations into existence.
And the level of trust in every system is highly reflective of the level of trust each individual on the shop floor has for the individuals and the teams at the top of the hierarchy running the system. And there is a legitimate argument that posits the notion that each system, per se, is a refuge for both the hierarchy and the underlings to use as a cloud, an obfuscation, a literal and metaphorical cover to escape full responsibility. Start with the notion that no “law” that is itself unjust does not merit either compliance or enforcement. And whether any rule, or regulation is just or unjust depends both on the ethical principles on which it is based, and on whether those principles have a deep and profound resonance among the “unwashed.”
Laws, rules, regulations, codes and systems, by definition, are tools to bring about what in Canada our constitution calls “peace order and good government”…sufficiently abstract and open to interpretation, as to ensure continuing reflection and debate, and thereby to continue to nurture the democratic foundation’s growing strength and health. Control of others, at the root of the smooth operation of any social enterprise, (schools libraries, churches, and corporations, as well as political entities) and the levers of power to both write and to administer those rules and regulations, rest primarily in the hands and the basic beliefs, perceptions, attitudes, and the personal ethics of those in charge. And there are any number of political influences preying upon the minds, thoughts, feelings and perceptions of those individuals at the top of the “system.”
A well-known adage of political life, (and every “system” operates as, and considers itself a political entity) is, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Whether or not the “squeaky wheel” is itself an expression of the most ethical and moral principle often succumbs to the immediacy of “pleasing” and silencing those “protesting” voices. No executive wants to have “turbulence” identity his/her “watch” if that turbulence can be squashed, or silenced by some promulgation of a rule, a regulation a policy or an edict. Often the length of time, and the perception of various options available impinge the decision-making process of any executive faced with the demand for change. Short-term resolution, based on the most simple and direct rule and regulation, disseminated as a matter of “normal” executive leadership, often betrays those seeking change, those who are expected to change, and especially the authority of the executive originating change.
For centuries, for example, the church has banned women from ordination, and relegated women to duties considered expressive of the perceived and historically fossilized exclusion or women from the highest echelons of ecclesial power and decision making. More recently, a cry for both inclusion in all levels of clergy, as well as a zero tolerance policy and rule about preventing relationships between clergy and laity (similar to those previously iron-clad in corporations, yet being relaxed based upon a more tolerant perspective). Similarly, LGBTQ persons have been historically excluded from both church membership and ordination, as the church continues to enforce a perspective that renders the church the arbiter of legitimate sexual relations among both straight and gay individuals. In an attempt to face the need to restrict what it considers “unethical” and “evil” from the perspective of some interpretations of scripture, as well as to attempt to integrate the prevailing political winds of the growing #MeToo movement, ecclesial decision-making forums have and continue to struggle with this vortex of influences. And to take a zero-tolerance position on clergy-laity relationships, for example, regardless inof whether the clergy or lay person is male or female, or straight or gay, is to render any member of the laity, by definition for the purpose of the policy and the regulations, incapable of the maturity and the personal integrity to make such a choice openly, voluntarily and freely. “Power over” is considered to be the predominant principle that is being used to “protect” the “vulnerable” from being abused. This principle, too, is highly operative and even dominant in the secular, corporate world, including all western military institutions.
Nevertheless, both in the “systems” designed to participate in education and in the process of inculcating spirituality, it is both obvious and irrefutable that any conversations, dialogues and encounters between the two participants (student/teacher, clergy/laity) have the potential of entering into highly personal and intimate regions of experience. Any responsible and non-neurotic policy established to “regulate” human sexual relations that bans the existence and the development of such relations from the institution is not merely unnatural, but is also based on the fear and insecurity of those attempting to lead those institutions. There is a legitimate argument that men, in positions of executive power, have over-compensated to attend to the view of the legitimately angry numbers of women who, themselves, have been abused by men in positions of power. A professor in another life memorable for his dramatic rhetoric and personal lecture style once told a class in Comparative Education, “The Russian method of solving a problem is to eliminate it!” Such a problem-solving approach has no place in contemporary institutions.
Perhaps, an enlightened and enlightening approach would be to open the door to a full discussion of the details of each “case” in which the traditional “rules” are being or about to be crossed. Getting to know the personal side of each situation, based on a starting place of “trust” as opposed to a starting place of fear, and ever more despicable, the starting place of protecting the public image of the church or the school board.
And this opens the door to how the culture addresses what it consider all incidents of offense between and among the people. Starting with a premise that human beings are primarily and incontrovertibly “evil” and “have short of the glory of God” (St. Paul) has resulted in highly elaborate, and ever more highly sophisticated body of law, law enforcement, codification, prosecution and enforcement of so many laws, many of them incarcerating millions on one hand for minor, non-violent offences, while failing to investigate, document and prosecute other crimes, especially among the rich and powerful, in all social and cultural institutions. The basic premises, themselves, are providing a mountain of evidence of how the system cannot be sustained, either by the numbers and the costs, let alone based on the fallacy that punishment acts as an effective deterrent for others.
Let’s continue to explore, to stretch our own comfort levels, in all of our institutions, to contribute to the legitimate evolution of reasonable, and reasonably based standards of comportment and conformity, without every losing sight of the uniqueness and the potential for good that lies within each of us.
Constricting the spirits of both the hierarchies and those for whom they are responsible is neither necessary nor life-giving for either demographic in the "system. In fact, when the system constricts the full life of the individual, it has to be confronted as an act of responsible discipleship and citizenship.