12 January 2006

Slow motion

In a recent "Iraq Reflection," Christian Peacemaker Teams member Greg Rollins asks, "How do you laugh in the middle of something as serious as an abduction?" (Sample: "***We have a running joke on the team that those who took our colleagues must be men. We gave them our phone number but they haven't called us. ***")

Rollins supplies at least part of the answer: "Humor is a coping mechanism. It helps people process the suffering or fear they have experienced. It also helps people keep painful emotions at bay. A Palestinian in Hebron once told CPT's Hebron team that if he didn't laugh about the torture he had endured in an Israeli prison, he would go crazy."

I don't think I'm going crazy (am I the best judge?), but waiting for word of the kidnapped CPT participants' fate continues to feel like living in slow motion. My coping mechanism is fantasy—taking my lead, perhaps, from Maxine, whose ideas about how the hostages and their "hosts" are getting alone were in my weblog last week. I think about all the wonderful ways that the crisis could end peacefully, with a big spike in CPT fundraising and wonderful publicity for God. I fantasize about how hearts are melted on all sides. People watching this drama all over the world become ready to take new risks for peace and justice. Rush Limbaugh apologizes for his taste-challenged comments. (See Anita David's related commentary—"What makes him think there's even one leftist feel-good hand-wringer here?".)

Most of all, I can't help thinking about how the hostages cope. They are no doubt aware of how much prayer is being poured out for their sakes. Do they feel assurance of God's care? Do they pass the time with humor and optimistic fantasies? What role does fear play?

A few days ago I finally saw Sergei Bodrov's 1997 film Prisoner of the Mountains, about the first Chechen war of the mid-1990's (although based on Lev Tolstoy's Caucasian Prisoner). Two Russian soldiers are captured by Chechens in an ambush. They are held by a mountain village elder to be exchanged for his son, who is being held in the Russian garrison jail. During their days of captivity together, the two soldiers have many conversations, ranging from discussions about their pasts and their families, to fearful speculation about their fate and their captors' plans.

Along with plenty of cursing and cynicism, there's the growth of understanding of their captors' humanity, and of the sources of local animosity toward Russians. As in real life (believe it or not, Rush Limbaugh), the slow infection of humanizing influences goes both ways. It is the cutting off of those influences, the rhetorical barbed wire of "you can't trust any of them" and the demonic imperative of vengeance, that result in the sudden hellish spurts of violence that punctuate and bracket this film, without dominating it.

A different sort of captivity dominates another film I saw recently—Jarhead, whose Desert Storm soldiers face risks mainly from themselves, each other, and the desert, hardly ever from the "enemy." However, some underlying themes are similar: how to live in slow motion, how to survive today's depersonalization and the anticipation of sudden death.

Is it possible that an ever-so-slow global infection of humanity is depressing the rate of new wars? According to Andrew Mack in the Washington Post, the Human Security Report, published by Oxford University Press, "reveals that after five decades of inexorable increase, the number of armed conflicts started to fall worldwide in the early 1990s. The decline has continued."

As long as we're not on the topic of top ten films, here's an interesting pair of top-10-of-2005 lists from two of Books & Culture's regular reviewers, Roy Anker and Peter Chattaway.

Look at this post by Aj Schwanz, if you haven't already. As a manifesto, the document she quotes, "Decisions that define us," doesn't really work for me. For one, thing, it is both too long and too glib at the same time—a nice trick! However, I very much like the way Aj is using that document, namely to provoke thought and discussion. ("What strikes you about this? What’s great? What’s uncomfortable? Where are you challenged?")

One thought I had right away: where does the "we have decided" litany come from? Who are "we" and how did "we" make our decisions? Did someone put words into "our" mouths or did "we" truly unite on this? (If so, Johan's doubts about length and glibness are more or less irrelevant.)

The comments attached to the post are also helpful. Among other wise things, Robin M. says, "This is one of the lines I think most relevant to Quakerism: 'We have decided that we are a mission station and not a museum.'"

Likewise, they "have decided to be infectious instead of innocuous, contagious instead of quarantined, deadly instead of benign." I would like to think that, for any church, this could mean more than cultural exuberance, risk-taking, spontaneity, whimsy and winsomeness for the Good News' sake, though that would be a good start! What do I mean by "more"? Another weblog, that of Rick Ellis of West Community Friends Church, helped me with some images for the "more" with his illustration of going beyond the bandaid and dealing with "the root of the problem." That "more" is a two-edged sword: first, as Rick Ellis says, it can mean personal involvement. But, it can also mean systemic, even political, involvement—and this is precisely where organized piety seems to fail.

Brave words about being contagious, radical lovers, storytellers of God's power both ignite my hope ... and remind me wearisomely of the Holiness rhetorical stock in trade that I've heard too much of: emotionally ratcheting people up to a pious lather, but never connecting the dots between evangelism and social justice, between saying "yes" to God and saying "no" to the Powers and Principalities, and "no" to EVERYTHING that the religion industry does to ingratiate itself to those Powers and to serve as their moral militia.

Oops, I've done it again and gotten political. Well, not everyone has to be political; in a healthy spiritual community, gifts (and hobbyhorses) vary. I don't expect everyone to connect every dot; I certainly can't. But I just want some little hint, somewhere in the church's public signs and signals, that the church knows which end is up, and which end points straight down.

Mark Twain had a gift for appropriating references beloved of piety and patriotism to make his prophetic point. Having quoted the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" not long ago to make a point about not mocking God's sovereign purposes, I now can't resist presenting (thanks to wikipedia.org) Twain's rewrite:
The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Updated was written in 1901 by Mark Twain, as a parody of American imperialism, in the wake of the Philippine-American War. It is written in the same tune and cadence as the original Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger's wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.

I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar in the Eastern dews and damps;
I have read his doomful mission by the dim and flaring lamps--
His night is marching on.

I have read his bandit gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my pretensions, so with you my wrath shall deal;
Let the faithless son of Freedom crush the patriot with his heel;
Lo, Greed is marching on!"

We have legalized the strumpet and are guarding her retreat;*
Greed is seeking out commercial souls before his judgement seat;
O, be swift, ye clods, to answer him! be jubilant my feet!
Our god is marching on!

In a sordid slime harmonious Greed was born in yonder ditch,
With a longing in his bosom--and for others' goods an itch.
As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich--
Our god is marching on.

* NOTE: In Manila the Government has placed a certain industry under the protection of our flag. (M.T.)

Friday PS (including Righteous Links, below):

From Maxine:

Subject: 12 January 2005 in Baghdad

Dearest friends-

So much for my New Year's resolution to be better at writing! It's already the 12th of January, and it's been too long since I've sent you my news.

We are still waiting for the return of our colleagues. The waiting has become an endurance feat. Not knowing makes us crazy. We don't have a lack of confidence about their return, but rather feel like "hurry up, already!"

In the meantime, we have decided to get back to our regular work. It was either that, or we (the team) make each other nuts by not having enough to do and no purpose. It's been a good decision, because at least now we feel like there are good reasons to get out of bed in the morning. And believe me, with the weather turned colder as it's been lately, I needed some convincing to get out from under my warm blankets in the dark (because there never seems to be much electricity in the morning) and face the day.

It has turned a bit warmer in the last couple of days, and we had a marvelous rain last night complete with thunder and lightning. Thunder is unusual here, and at first I thought it was explosions which are far more common. It took me some time to realize that it was thunder, and it was such a pleasant surprise. Something as mundane as thunder takes on a whole new meaning here. It was a joyous sound to me.

I'm putting an effort into finding the joyous, mundane things these days, because I'm realizing how important they are to supporting peace of mind in the middle of crisis. Birds singing, the sound of rain, a child's laughter, hot cocoa, letters from friends and family, the smell of clean laundry...all of these things bring comfort in the middle of chaos.

Most especially I'm finding that my time with God (usually early in the quiet of the morning before the generators start running)is critical to my own well-being. It's a relationship, and it takes time each day to renew it, to sort things out, to unload worries and complaints, and to just be present together. Like any relationship it requires some sacrifice, because the best quiet time for me is the early morning time before the rest of the world, including my teammates, are up and moving. Yet that's when I can really hear God the best, and so it's worth it.

That being said, I'm off to do the very thing before the world here wakes up!

Blessings on you-

Righteous links include:

Michael Kinsley (with thanks to my colleague Patti Crane)—Who can resist a commentary entitled "Give Me Liberty Or Help Me Think About It?"

John Witte, Jr., co-editor of a fine book, Proselytism and Orthodoxy in Russia, contributed a thoughtful commentary on evolution vs intelligent design to the U of Chicago Martin Marty Center's Sightings newsletter.

Pat Robertson apologizes for his uninvited theological diagnosis of Sharon, according to this article from AP via Yahoo News. Now who will expose Robertson's diagnostic techniques for the sake of future patients? Bob Ramsey gives it a good try.


Anonymous said...

So do you think there's a copyright on the Twain piece? Could we reprint it in our Meeting newsletter? Can I forward it to all my relatives?

Johan Maurer said...

According to the guidelines at this page at wikipedia.org, Mark Twain's 1901 text is covered. To cover the commentary, I made the "prominent link" to the wikipedia source page.