Another Commonwealth Is Possible

In just a few months, the Commonwealth Games are to be staged here in Glasgow. As well as being a lucrative business opportunity for some, the Games are intended to celebrate the values of the Commonwealth, namely democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Yet my experiences often suggest that contrary values prevailed under the British Empire, which was reduced to the Commonwealth following decolonization. There is the opulent grandeur of the Merchant City, gorged on private wealth generated in the colonies and plantations. There are war memorials, carved stone belying carved-up territories and bloody military campaigns waged across Africa, the Middle East and the Indo-Pak subcontinent. When I lived in a Commonwealth nation, Guyana, several years ago, I saw first-hand the tense historical legacy of the mass uprooting of whole populations subsequently forced into slavery (Africans) or indentured labour (Indians) on what were said to be the most brutal of all the Empire’s sugar plantations.

I reflect on all of this because it throws into relief the radically different vision of the Commonwealth that we, as followers of Jesus and Catholic Workers, are called to participate in. At the heart of who Jesus was, and what he called his followers to, was this dream of the Basileia tou Theou; in contemporary language, the Commonwealth of God.

Jesus’ entire mission can be seen as a sign and realization of this new Commonwealth. The rich and powerful, who enjoy the prestige and recognition of society, find themselves last; the first to be embraced by this new Commonwealth are the poor, the marginalized, the religious outsiders and the oppressed, whom Jesus calls blessed. The Commonwealth of God explodes the logic of meritocracy and exclusivism, announcing a banquet to which all are invited. Jesus’ Commonwealth is the promise of liberation from all that enslaves us, including the drive to dominate and separate ourselves from others; it is the salve which restores our sight, so that we can see ourselves for who we truly are: sisters and brothers, fully alive to one another in dignity and communion; fully open to the reality of God-with-us, the Abba-Mystery in whom we live, move and have our being.

Jesus’ parables suggest that the Commonwealth of God, unlike other commonwealths, is not forced upon us from above through coercion. Instead, it grows from the ground up like a seed, or from within like yeast, often in darkness and obscurity. The Commonwealth grows as we learn that power is authentic not when it is held over others or used to stay in control but when it is yoked by love and turned to service.

We cannot say ‘Yes’ to the Commonwealth of God and remain the same. The veracity of Jesus’ vision was met by the cross and death. But as Leonardo Boff writes, “The last word will not be that of death but of transfiguration of life in its fullness. This is a hope that has never disappeared, nor will it disappear from the earth.” Since Jesus first proclaimed the Good News of the coming-near of God’s Commonwealth, empires predicated on privilege, power and oppression have arisen and fallen. All the while, Jesus’ upside-down dream for the world has continued to burn, at times building to a blaze. The beauty of Jesus’ hope for the world flamed out in the lives of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin and many years later, we in Glasgow seek to live out and live ever in hope of this great Commonwealth of God.

“The time of waiting is over. The Commonwealth of God is approaching. Change your life. Believe in this good news.” (Mk 1:15).

This article was originally written for the Glasgow Catholic Worker newspaper, Issue 2 (March 2014). More information here: http://catholicworker.org.uk/

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Stand

Sign in hand

I stand

as people pass by

my waiting why.

If a dead child

can be buried

behind a statistic,

then I can surely

stand here;

a question mark of mourning.

“Drones bury beautiful lives.”

Raz Mohammed, an Afghan Peace Volunteer, who lost family to a drone attack.

Image

Today is 12 years since the invasion of Afghanistan led by the US-Nato, under ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’. Learn more about how the war has affected ordinary Afghans, in their own words, here: http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/kathy-kelly-more-voices-afghanistan

This week is the Week of Action Against Drones. Learn more:  http://dronecampaignnetwork.wordpress.com/ & http://dronewars.net/

The Rich Man and Us: Listening Beyond Indifference

“Any preaching of the Gospel which fails to constitute a scandal and affront to the political state is in my view effectively worthless”[i]. I still recall with vividness the first time I read these words from Terry Eagleton, the former Catholic and Marxist literary critic, when I was 19. They confused me as equally as they attracted me, because despite being brought up as Catholic, my late teens had been punctuated by half-read and even less well-understood tracts on existential philosophy and Beat poetry; I was much more fascinated by the raucous life of Jim Morrison than this man Jesus and if I had read any scripture, it was only because I had been told by a philosophy-teacher friend that the book of Ecclesiastes effectively constituted the first, still-extant example of existentialist prose (You’re not sure? Try: “Then I took a good look at everything I’d done, looked at all the sweat and hard work. But when I looked, I saw nothing but smoke. Smoke and spitting into the wind. There was nothing to any of it. Nothing.” Ecc.2:11). So it was reading Eagleton’s book ‘Faith, Reason and Revolution’ which served as my re-introduction to the Christian faith generally and, more particularly, to liberation theology – though it should be said that Eagleton, with good reason, is reluctant to give it that name himself, for as he holds, “All authentic theology is liberation theology”. It helped me to understand some of my experiences in Latin America and was an invitation to sit with a whole new set of questions.

It was only a few years later that I came across the brilliant notion that Jesus’ parables are crafted as ‘hand grenades for the mind’ to disrupt our conventional, conditioned patterns of thought and shock us into seeing the world in a new and renewing way (Cynthia Bourgeault goes over this in her masterly book ‘The Wisdom Jesus’). Over the past couple of days, I have been chewing over a particularly subversive parable from Luke, in which Jesus offers a prophetic critique of the rich/poor divide which, sadly, is still absolutely relevant to our situation:

 “There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.[ii]

The contrast in the quality of life experienced by these two men who live parallel lives is truly shocking…if we allow it to be. On the one hand, we see the rich man who lives his life lavishly as if in ‘splendid isolation’, the consummate consumer, his conscience numbed by abundance. On the other hand, we see Lazarus, destitute, vulnerable and dejected, quite literally ‘consumed’ by the dogs which prey on his weakness. We see how he has ‘been dumped’ on the doorstep; in the barrio, the ghetto or the sink estate – wherever, to use Bauman’s disturbing term, ‘the human waste’ of neoliberal restructuring is disposed of – yet never far from the gated communities and prime real estate of the elites. Pagola writes of how the two ‘are separated by the abyss which exists between the rich person’s life of insulting opulence and the poor person’s extreme misery’[iii], both of which, as Ellacuria suggests, are bound up in a revealing dialectic: for Jesus, ‘it is not a question of praising poverty in itself and condemning wealth in itself. It is the relationship between the two that interests him. He condemns wealth that makes people poor and praises poverty that points an accusing finger at the malignant reality of wealth’[iv]. Yet already, we are given some sense of the Great Reversal at play: in contrast to our celebrity-fixated society which is saturated with ‘big names’, the rich man remains anonymous; conversely, we know Lazarus by name – a name and a human story emerge to engage us with the so-often anonymised poor. To be named is to be known, and to be known is to be in relationship: the rich man’s namelessness speaks of his isolation, the lonely inwardness of extreme affluence.

Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.’

But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.’

The imagery and metaphor used in the passage above is blunt, dualistic and graphically brutal. The prophetic use of the image of ‘hell’ (which in the Jewish tradition stems from Gehenna, the historical rubbish dump outside the city walls of Jerusalem which was constantly ablaze – a far cry from the spiritualized and other-worldly notion peddled by many fundamentalist Christians today) is primarily a challenge issued ‘to force you to the weighing of consequence, to choicefulness and consciousness’ here and now, in this world, as Rohr puts it.[v]

The choice given to the rich man – and, by extension, to us – is between ‘the living death’[vi] of separateness and unfeeling indifference to suffering or the life-giving choice to love, be compassionate and live in solidarity and communion with others – in the rich man’s case, with Lazarus. There is a sense in which the rich man can be said to have ceased living even as he still lived, as when Oscar Romero said, “I would not want to live the life of many of today’s powerful, who don’t live a real life. They live under guard, they live with uneasy consciences, they live in anxiety. That is not life.”[vii] Perhaps that is why when Jesus addresses the rich in Luke’s Beatitudes, (“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation”), his mode of speaking is that of one who mourns for the dead.

Mexican liberation theologian Jose Miranda goes on to draw out even starker implications from the parable: the rich man isn’t punished for failing to give alms to Lazarus or for boasting depraved habits; “What is punished is differentiating wealth, in its purest expression…What is punished, in torment, is that some are rich and others are poor”[viii]. Again we notice the dialectic observed by Ellacuria – the inherent difference-creating relation of oppression connecting abject poverty to extreme wealth, which is antithetical to the King/Queendom proclaimed by Jesus.

Perhaps even more strikingly, Lazarus is consoled with no mention whatsoever of his own virtue or character; apparently, God’s vision is not a meritocracy. Miranda observes: ‘Here as throughout the Bible, the poor person’s interior dispositions are of no importance. He is rewarded for the simple reason that he is poor’[ix]. I think it would be fair to say that the truly radical nature of this statement about the poor and their relationship with the Divine has been ignored by most of Christian history and tradition.

The rich man now finds himself separated – as he indeed chose to be – from Lazarus by ‘a huge chasm’ which is impossible to cross. That this chasm exists between the rich man and Lazarus insofar as the former is wealthy and the latter is poor is indisputable. This is the chasm imaged by vast inequalities of wealth and power, more pertinent than ever to our stage in history; as Jon Sobrino reminds us, we live in a world of ‘Lazaruses’[x]. Consider the fact that 16% of global economic output is owned by 0.000016% of the world’s population[xi] and around 2.6 billion people – that is more than one-third of the world’s population – subsist on less than $2 per day. Or indeed that the GDP of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (containing 567 million people) is less than the combined wealth of the world’s seven richest individuals. This is the chasm fixed by exclusionary practices and the accruement of wealth through unjust structures and illegitimate debts which deny so many people their dignity and basic rights; the chasm constructed by gentrification and ‘development projects’ which displace some of our poorest and most disadvantaged citizens to peripheral areas where they need not be seen; the chasm which lies between enclaves of prosperity and the refugee camp, where women, men and children on a move to ensure their own survival in the wake of the chaos caused by war and persecution, poverty or climate change are detained in dehumanising conditions far from western eyes. As former UN General Secretary, Kofi Annan, reminds us: ‘No one today is unaware of this divide between the world’s rich and poor. No one today can claim ignorance of the cost that this divide imposes on the poor and dispossessed who are no less deserving of human dignity, fundamental freedoms, security, food, and education than any of us.’

The rich man said, ‘Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.’

Abraham answered, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.’

‘I know, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.’

Abraham replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.’”

The Gospel insistently calls us to conversion, to that fundamental reorientation/ turning around that is repentance. Yet what will it take to ‘shatter our indifference’?[xii] History and experience seem to vindicate Jesus’ insight into just how resistant humans are toward deep and radical change. Jesus is realistic: even as he concludes his parable, he suggests that its chances of actually being heard are slim. Often censorship is most effective as a shut-down of receptivity to the message; how else could such a subversive text be found at the core of a religion which has all too often colluded with state power and brutal conquest? In this parable, ‘listening’ seems to be the precondition for redemption; for any change of heart, a resultant change of structures and an arrival at right relationship – with one another, with the Earth and, ultimately, with God. At this critical juncture for humanity and planet, are we able to engage in the kind of profound and honest listening – to those prophetic voices which issue both from within tradition and from our contemporary world – that is the first step towards dismantling our indifference and liberating us for something far greater?

“The liberation that Christianity preaches is a liberation from something that enslaves, for something that ennobles us. Those who talk only about the enslavement, about the negative part of liberation, do not have all the power that the church can give one. It struggles, yes, against the earth’s enslavements, against oppression, against misery, against hunger. All that’s true – but, for what? For something. St Paul uses a beautiful expression: to be free for love. To be free for something positive, that is what Christ means when he says, “Follow me.”    

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, martyred March 24th, 1980.[xiii]


[i] Faith, Reason and Revolution, Terry Eagleton.

[ii] Passage taken from The Message, Luke 16, 19-31.

[iv] p.33, Freedom Made Flesh, Ignacio Ellacuria.

[v] p.171, Things Hidden, Scripture as Spirituality, Richard Rohr.

[vi] Eagleton, again.

[vii] p. 161, The Violence of Love, Oscar Romero,.

[viii] p.23, Communism in the Bible, Jose P Miranda.

[ix] Miranda, see above.

[x] p.104, The Radical Bible.

[xii] Pagola, see above.

[xiii] p.170, Romero, see above.

Contempla(c)tion

I started praying

to befriend the silence

but in that silence

I first heard the cry of those

oppressed by violence.

I started praying

to heal the separateness within

but facing my own divisions

I turned to find a world

divided by sin.

I started praying

in a verdant house of prayer

but on returning to the city

found that the homeless

greeted me there.

I started praying

to nurture this deepest, fresh belonging

then couldn’t ignore the strangers

who were refused

the new life of their longing.

I started praying

to part the soil

and plant the seeds of peace

but soon found my garden

bounded by

fires that would not cease.

And now?

I cannot stop.

“The time will shortly be upon us, if it is not already here, when the pursuit of contemplation becomes a strictly subversive activity…I am convinced that contemplation, including the common worship of the believing, is a political act of the highest value, implying the riskiest of consequences to those taking part.”

Daniel Berrigan, SJ.

“Mysticism is the experience of the oneness and the wholeness of life. Therefore, mysticism’s perception of life, its vision, is also the unrelenting perception of how fragmented life is. Suffering on account of that fragmentation and finding it unbearable is part of mysticism. Finding God fragmented into rich and poor, top and bottom, sick and well, weak and mighty: that’s the mystic’s suffering…the long-lasting and most dangerous resistance is the one that was born from beauty.”

Fulbert Soelle

To a Barra bee

Heiseabhal-heather

abuzz, all around

pollen-lovers that bumble

and petal-fumble abound,

red streak that adorns you

unique crown, Barra’s own;

what native intelligence

led you beneath the bracken

to burrow your home?

“[Wisdom]…pervades and permeates all things.”

Wisdom, 7:24.

(Dis)Order!

I wrote the following in response to the recent protest which interrupted John Kerry as he made the case for a U.S. military intervention in Syria (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dw5SVC8mhRg).

“We don’t want another war,” comes the cry,

a lone voice in the chamber, the people’s yearning to amplify.

“Can I ask the police to restore order?” comes the reply;

thus revealing how power maintains the violent lie.

Where order

is permanent disorder,

Security

is domination,

Credibility

is equated with

a readiness to wage war,

And debate

an echo-chamber

for unbounded fear

and undeclared interests.

– Where language itself

is twisted and tortured

before any missile

is launched.

‘The human race today is like an alcoholic who knows that drink will destroy him and yet always has “good reasons” why he must continue drinking. Such is man in his fatal addiction to war. He is not really capable of seeing a constructive alternative to war.’

Thomas Merton

‘There are minorities who are well aware that violence is not the real answer to violence; that, if violence is met by violence, the world will fall into a spiral of violence, that the only true answer to violence is to have the courage to face the injustices which constitute violence no. 1.’

Dom Helder Camara

‘Violence violates the self. Yet that’s exactly what the system believes in, what the system preaches, what the system practices: violence. Certainly I believe in the necessity of fighting the system, but one thing I’m not going to do is employ the same tactics and methods the system uses every day. Why replace the system with the same thing? …I reject the tools and weapons of violence.’

Mumia Abu-Jamal

Call Quality

Video call accepted:

somehow, incredibly,

data flows

combine as

your face that glows;

even the gentle nuance

of your voice

is transported into my kitchen –

my time-difference-breakfast

to your waiting lunch –

computer code

unfolds the closeness,

the exhilaration of what is new

even the fear of what is uncertain

the outrage at what is unjust.

Our intimacy

irreducible

– pointless to compress –

a ghost in the machine, perhaps

or just all the dawns we’ve seen.

Your presence

too vivid to be confined to a screen,

a set call duration:

all through my day

I taste you like the anticipation

of awaiting a lover’s arrival in a railway station…

The call nears its close

as routine reasserts its grip

but even just

the rippling what-is-fresh

of your laugh

makes a more urgent demand:

to lie in the grass

and write you poetry- !