Beyond Punch and Judy: The art of nonviolent resistance

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In Faith and Violence, a book published amid the political turbulence of 1968, Thomas Merton told an old Hasidic story about two men, one drunk and one sober, who were beaten and robbed as they traveled through the forest. Asked later about what had happened, the sober one described the violent encounter in vivid detail, but the drunken one seemed quite placid. “We’re all right,” he said. “Everything is fine.” Merton went on to observe that for some, faith “seems to be a kind of drunkenness, an anesthetic, that keeps you from realizing and believing that anything can ever go wrong.” But, he asked, is faith a “narcotic dream” or is it “an awakening”? Then he delivered his punch line: “What if we were to awaken to discover that we were the robbers, and our destruction comes from the root of hate in ourselves.”[i]

At a time when a brutal war was raging in the jungles of Vietnam, police and protestors were clashing in the American street, and leaders who spoke out for justice and peace were being assassinated, a monk dedicated to contemplative retreat from the world felt compelled to explore the theology of love in an age of violence, one which would “deal realistically with the evil and injustice of the world.”[ii] How do we resist the violence in our society without adding our own anger and demons into the mix? How do we resist systemic and social sin while harboring no illusions about our own capacities to do harm?

In recent days there have been numerous conversations about the escalating political violence surrounding the Trump campaign. My own post (March 12) on the topic has generated heartfelt responses of shared concern. Many of us are wondering what we can do about the situation without defaulting to our own versions of anger or fear. We need experienced guides through such tricky terrain, and Thomas Merton is one of the best.

“We no longer communicate,” Merton said. “We abandon communication in order to celebrate our own favorite group-myths in a ritual pseudo-event.”[iii] He wrote that in the Sixties, but he could have been describing a Trump rally, which, in the absence of substantive content, is mostly a ritual acting out of a group-myth, reaching its crescendo in the anticipated expulsion of protesters. As Rachel Maddow showed in a recent montage of those expulsions, Trump repeatedly asks the crowd, “Isn’t this exciting?” Roughing up protesters may express anything from personal rage to fascist methodology, but it is also entertainment. As Neil Postman has noted, Americans like “amusing ourselves to death.”[iv] When the anti-Trump signs come out, the crowd gets happy, knowing the real fun is about to begin.

This is all contemptible and sad. But I wonder: how do protestors avoid becoming unwitting collaborators in Trump’s entertainments? Even if they don’t hit back or give the crowd the finger, how do they escape complicity in a political Punch and Judy show? How do they avoid getting their own group-myths stuck in the futility of an endless ritualized dualism of “us versus them”?

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. The peacemaker is committed to communion as the nature and destiny of humankind. As Martin Luther King said in a speech I remember from my college days, we must see the face of Christ even in the police who are attacking us with dogs and fire hoses. Or as Jesus himself taught, we must love our enemies. That does not mean capitulating to evil, or abstaining from the tainted ambiguities of political conflict. But it does mean that we ultimately belong to a much better story, where one day the tears will be wiped from every eye, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the prodigal will be welcomed home. It means that our highest commitment is not to defeat our enemies but to make the divine love story of amazing grace come true for everyone.

As Merton wrote, “Christian nonviolence is not built on a presupposed division, but on the basic unity of [humankind]. It is not out for the conversion of the wicked to the ideas of the good, but for the healing and reconciliation of … the human family.”[v] This isn’t sentimental benevolence or passive submission. It’s a very tough form of love, as Jesus, Gandhi, King and many others have demonstrated in their costly commitment to a wider, more generous perspective than the self-righteous justifications of partisan interests. Our struggles must always reject the ultimacy of division in favor of communion. “The key to nonviolence,” Merton reminds us, “is the willingness of the nonviolent resister to suffer a certain amount of accidental evil in order to bring about a change of mind in the oppressor.”[vi]

But how do we apply this wisdom to the specific challenges of our own day? How can we respond creatively to the upwelling of anger, fear, racism and nativism poisoning our public life? In 1968, Merton compiled a list of principles for nonviolent resisters which is worth considering. While he admitted that the complexity and fluidity of events in that turbulent year could make any opinion lose its value in a matter of weeks, I believe his prescriptions retain an enduring value:

1) “be free from unconscious connivance with an unjust and established abuse of power”

2) “be not for [oneself[ but for others, that is for the poor and underprivileged”

3) “dread a facile and fanatical self-righteousness and refrain from being satisfied with dramatic self-justifying gestures”

4) demonstrate “a desirable alternative” to violence and injustice

5) use means which embody and manifest the emergent way of being which Christians call the Kingdom of God

6) be “willing to learn something from the adversary”

7) be grounded in hope and humility – what we strive for is a gift from God’s future: not of our own making, and not yet fully here [vii]

I particularly like Number 4 (demonstrate a desirable alternative) and Number 6 (embody and manifest the Kingdom of God). It is what we do in the eucharist, where everyone is welcome, everyone practices reconciliation, and everyone shares the bread of heaven. But can we take such countercultural vision into the street?

Yes we can. There are various ways (many of which have yet to be invented!). Even into her nineties, my mother joined the “women in black” every Friday in silent vigil against the Iraq war on the streets of Santa Barbara. Their faithful witness was impossible to ignore, while at the same time it perfectly embodied the peace for which they stood.

A very different display of visionary resistance occurred at the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Advent of 1999. Those who watched the news only saw the Punch and Judy show of untrained police and young provocateurs turning a shoving match into a tear-gassed conflict. But the most important things that happened were not on television. This is what I myself witnessed on the day of the big rally and march[viii]:

There was a large banner which read, AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL. It seemed a perfect summary of the gospel: “If you do it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.” All in Christ, Christ in all. Solidarity forever. We were there to speak for all those whom the WTO would rather silence or forget – voices crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

At 12:30 pm, we took to the streets, marching up Fourth Avenue. to join the thousands more who were already downtown. It was a wonderfully diverse procession: there were people dressed as Santa Claus, sea turtles, trees, and even death. But it was not some crazy fringe out there. As one writer put it, “These were the kids at UW, the ladies from church, the guys at Boeing. It was Seattle that was marching this week.”

As in all street rituals, there was a playful, carnival atmosphere. As Richard Shechner observes in his book, The Future of Ritual:

“When people go into the streets en masse, they are celebrating life’s fertile possibilities…They put on masks and costumes, erect and wave banners, and construct effigies not only to disguise or embellish their ordinary selves, or to flaunt the outrageous, but also to act out the multiplicity each human life is…They protest, often by means of farce and parody, against what is oppressive, ridiculous and outrageous…Such playing challenges official culture’s claims to authority, stability, sobriety, immutability and immortality.”[ix]

In other words, we were exhibiting the same spirit – dare I say “holy spirit”? – of playfulness, camaraderie, irony and subversion that was seen ten years ago at Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall and, during biblical times, at the Red Sea and the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday. And as faith tells us, the powers don’t stand a chance against the foolishness of God.

There were people on stilts, people carrying giant puppets, babies in carriages and elders with canes and walkers. I stuck close to the Anti-Fascist Marching Band, which played soulful New Orleans versions of “America the Beautiful”, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” We all just danced up Fourth Avenue …

So, my friends, how shall we do the Kingdom dance in the year of grace 2016?

 

 

 

[i] Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice (Notre Dame, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1968) ix-x (All quotes from Faith and Violence are in The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (New York: Orbis Books, 2002) under the entry on Merton’s book, but I have listed the original volume’s page numbers in the footnotes.)

[ii] ibid., 9

[iii] ibid., 159

[iv] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 2005)

[v] Merton, 15

[vi] ibid., 27-28

[vii] ibid., 21-25

[viii] From a sermon I preached the following Sunday at St. Augustine’s-in-the-Woods Episcopal Church, Whidbey Island, WA (Advent II, 1999))

[ix] Richard Schechner, The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance (London & New York: Routledge, 1993), 46

Unsilent Night: An Advent Revelation

Sun in black sky

Last Saturday after dark, about 60 people gathered at a Seattle’s On the Boards theater to begin a neighborhood walk called “Unsilent Night.” Created in 1992 by New York composer Phil Kline, it is a “luminous soundscape” enacted for 45 minutes on a single night in December. This year, 37 American and Canadian cities joined in.

Participants downloaded one of 4 separate but complementary music tracks of ambient minimalism on their phones, and carried portable speakers as they walked the streets together in a collective mobile sound sculpture. NPR has described Unsilent Night this way: “chiming and chants bounce off walls and windows, transforming the coldest urban area with the warmth of musical fellowship.”

And so we began, moving block by block, a mesmerizing river of sound flowing slowly along the sidewalks of the city. An initial shimmering of bright cascading notes eventually evolved into the low rumble of droning chords, succeeded by percussive xylophone patterns, as if Steve Reich were composing for gamelan. Those metallic notes later gave way to more drones and electronic chords, which became the ground for choral fragments: Gregorian chants, wordless repetitions of ‘ah’ pitched at varied intervals, and melismatic Alleluias. Despite this discernible evolution of musical shifts and changes, the cumulative effect felt unhurried and relaxed.

The Queen Anne neighborhood is a lively mix of small shops, restaurants, and theaters, plus a cinema and basketball arena. A diverse assortment of people was already out looking for the heart of Saturday night, so there were many witnesses to our sonic procession. But surprisingly few showed much reaction. Some stared blankly, as if this unexpected phenomenon eluded their emotional register. They simply didn’t know what to make of it. Others looked away, perhaps wishing us into invisibility. Such a thing should not be happening in their world, so they pretended it wasn’t. Still others wore earbuds, disabling any receptivity to a reality beyond their own self-enclosure.

Yet some indeed had ears to hear, responding with smiles or looks of wonder. Car windows rolled down to let in the sound. The Latino doorman of a boutique hotel grinned ear to ear as we passed. A homeless woman in a wheelchair gave us a knowing smile, as if we were a welcome sign of sad times ending.

Like the best liturgy, it created community out of strangers through a shared action, and forged our collectivity into both sign and instrument of mystery and wonder. It was a perfect rite for Advent, contesting the old order while announcing an “impossible possible” drawing near. For the 45 minutes of the sound sculpture, sidewalks designed for functionality (keep moving to your next purchase, or go home!) became spaces for play. The ugliness of traffic noise was challenged by sweeter sounds. Strangers were invited to smile at one another, forgetting their solitudes for a few precious moments. And the birth of something deeply poetic usurped the accustomed prose of urban life.

As Twylene Moyer has written concerning participatory public art, it invites us “to re-evaluate what we mean by quality of life, to reassess what we think we know, and to reconsider how we choose to live with ourselves and each other.”[i] Why shouldn’t we feel fully at home in our public spaces, experiencing them as places of human affection and delight, inclusiveness and solidarity, joy and wonder? Why can’t we?

Theologian Langdon Gilkey makes an even more sweeping claim for such a re-visioning process. Art, he says, “makes us see in new and different ways, below the surface and beyond the obvious. Art opens up the truth hidden and within the ordinary; it provides a new entrance into reality and pushes us through that entrance. It leads us to what is really there and really going on. Far from subjective, it pierces the opaque subjectivity, the not seeing, of conventional life, of conventional viewing, and discloses reality.”[ii]

Seeing “the truth hidden and within the ordinary,” piercing the “not seeing of conventional life” with the inbreaking of deeper reality – these comprise the essence of Christianity’s annual Advent project. Not everyone welcomes this kind of seeing, and many reject its very possibility. But for at least some of us who experienced the wonder of Unsilent Night, a richer account of the universe, making room for the transcendent, felt more persuasive than the alternatives.

As I walked in this procession of glorious sound, an Advent hymn came to mind:

Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding.
“Christ is nigh,” it seems to say.

Not everyone would put the name of Christ to what we did and the sound we made together, but that doesn’t alter the content of the experience.

If God is more of a situation than an object, then the community, relationality, mystery, beauty, wonder, delight, and communion produced by the event seemed apt expressions of divinity taking “place,” or “being here now.” You didn’t have to name it to live it.

Toward the end of our walk we were led into a bit of open space set back from the street, where the music was not so compromised by traffic noise. And there our little speakers, one by one, began to ring with a peal of sonorous bell tones, until we were all immersed in such a joyous tintinnabulation that I could imagine myself in heaven. Every face I saw around me glowed with amazement. If the Incarnation were a sound, this would be it, suddenly sanctifying a scrubby vacant lot in Queen Anne.

As the bells faded, we processed one more block, back to our starting point, where we stood in what felt like a prayer circle while the final portion of the composition slowly faded into silence. Some closed their eyes, and everyone seemed rapt and attentive, in a state of peace and gratitude.

Once the music ended, the spell was quickly broken. We went our separate ways, strangers once more, but perhaps “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.”[iii] For a moment we had known something better, and would not forget.

 

 

 

 

[i] Twylene Moyer, Artists Reclaim the Commons: New Works/New Territories/New Publics (Ed. Glenn Harper and Twylene Moyer, Hamilton, NJ: isc Press, 2013), 8

 

[ii] Langdon Gilkey, from an address given at the Art Institute of Chicago, published as “Can Art Fill the Vacuum?” in Art, Creativity and the Sacred: An Anthology in Religion and Art, ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 189-90

[iii] The phrase is from T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” expressing the incompatibility of what the Magi had experienced in Bethlehem with the unredeemed world to which they returned.

The O Antiphons: “Drenched in the speech of God”

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine and Magdalene (detail), c. 1500, Accademia, Venice

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine and Magdalene (detail), c. 1500, Accademia, Venice

When belief in God is the matter to be decided, the central question is whether you can and should allow yourself to retain or be drawn into the patterns of thought that make the believer’s world what it is.

– David M. Holley

Pierced by the light of God…drenched in the speech of God,
your body bloomed, swelling with the breath of God.

– Hildegard of Bingen

One of the joys of Advent’s final days is the praying of the O Antiphons, seven eloquent supplications based on biblical images or attributes of the divine. Liturgically, they begin and end the Magnificat at Vespers from December 17th to December 23rd, but they can also be a rich resource for personal prayer as Christ-mass draws near. I tape each day’s particular antiphon to the mirror where I begin and end my day. Doors, dashboards and desks would also be good places to encounter these compelling texts, letting them awaken our attention over and over throughout the day.

Today’s antiphon, in my free paraphrase:

O Sophia, you are the truth of harmonious form,
the pattern of existence, the shapeliness of love.
Come: illumine us, enable us, empower us
to live in your Wisdom, your Torah, your Way.

The best-known version of the O Antiphons is the hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” You can find my own variations on the seven antiphons here.

In my December 17 post last year, I wrote:

Each antiphon is both greeting and supplication to the God who comes to save us:

O Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse, O Clavis David,
O Oriens, O Rex Gentium, O Emmanuel … O … O … O …

O is such an evocative word. We use it when we come upone something outside ourselves, often unexpected, something that engages us face to face.

 “O” can be an inhalation, a gasp, the cry of astonishment at the heart of every encounter with the Holy. If our place of prayer were suddenly filled with smoke and angels, or if the Holy called us out of a burning bush, our first response might well be “O!”

 There is also the O of understanding, or recognition: “O, now I see, now I get it.” Or even, “O, it’s you!”

 And then there is the ecstatic O, expressing delight, wonder, the sigh of surrender: Ohhhhhhh!

 Each of these is a fitting response when we meet the divine:

 Astonishment
Recognition
Surrender

As the Antiphons return this year, I happen to be reading David M. Holley’s illuminating book, Meaning and Mystery: What it Means to Believe in God. In fresh and thoughtful ways, he suggests that God is not a hypothesis to be tested or a puzzle to be solved by detached observers, but an experience to be encountered by receptive participants, those who know how to say “O!”

Thinking of God as a hypothesis to be inferred from specifiable data means starting from an understanding of a world that does not presuppose God, but belief in God is not a matter of moving from such a world to a reality in which God is included. It is a matter of finding yourself within the kind of world where God is implicit already.[i]

In other words, the truth of belief isn’t something that can be decided from a position outside of the patterns of life and thought that constitute a religious view of the world. If you want to experience God, learn to genuflect, learn to pray, learn to sing and dance in the presence of the Holy.

Astonishment. Recognition. Surrender.

It is certainly possible to live inside an alternative story, where God is absent or nonexistent. But I find that a bleak and unpromising account of reality. This old world, beset by human folly, massive violence, economic injustice, and dispiriting politics, needs divine imagination more than ever.

The prophet Zephaniah responded to his own dark times with a profound hope in God’s Advent as a redemptive rewrite of the human story. Amid the current proliferation of hateful speech, faithless fear and violent bluster, how we long with Zephaniah for a new story, a better language.

At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the holy Name and serve God with one accord.[ii]

May that day come when we are all “drenched in the speech of God,” whose language is justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, communion.

O Desire of all nations and peoples,
you are the strong force that draws us toward you,
the pattern which choreographs creation
to Love’s bright music.
Come: teach us the steps
that we may dance with you.

 

Related posts

Praying the O Antiphons

Ten Ways to Keep a Holy Advent

[i] David M. Holley, Meaning and Mystery: What it Means to Believe in God (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 47-48 [the epigraph is also Holley, p. 48]

[ii] Zephaniah 3:9

“God isn’t fixing this”

Advent installation by Jim Friedrich at St. John's Episcopal Church, Los Angeles (1977)

Advent installation by Jim Friedrich at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Los Angeles (1977)

O come, O come Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel.

Once upon a time, worshippers entered their church on the Second Sunday of Advent to find a great wall between themselves and the sanctuary. The beautiful mosaics, the richly colored marble walls, and the magnificent carved Christ above the high altar were all hidden from view by this strange iconostasis, made from front pages of the Los Angeles Times. Instead of the images of holy men and women that adorn a traditional altar screen, there were banner headlines screaming catastrophe and mayhem.

When the assembly was seated, a mime came up the aisle to stand before the wall, searching for some way through it. His movements and gestures indicated perplexity, frustration, and finally discouragement. Then a voice from beyond the wall cried out,

Jerusalem, turn your eyes to the east,
see the joy that is coming to you from God. (Baruch 4:36).

Responding to the voice, the mime tore a small hole in the wall, and peeked through. He seemed entranced by what he saw.

The voice continued:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on forever the beauty of God’s glory. (Baruch 5:1)

The mime began to tear down the wall, encouraging others to join him. One by one, people rose from their pews to rip down the veil “of sorrow and affliction,” until the beauty of God’s sanctuary was finally revealed.

This simple but powerful ritual, the prelude to a eucharist I curated forty years ago at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, comes to mind whenever I hear that passage from Baruch in the December lectionary. It’s what we pray for each Advent from our place on this side of the wall: Good Lord, deliver us. Stir up your power. Tear down the wall between us. Show us your glory.

That wall of headlines reflected my ongoing interest in connecting Advent themes with the news of the world. The WTO protests in Seattle (1999) and the Occupy Movement (2011) both coincided nicely with Advent, mirroring its prophetic themes of judging the present order with the hope and vision of something better.[i] And just last week, the front page of the New York Daily News supplied a marvelous Advent provocation. By noon, it had 11 million Facebook views, and 74,000 shares.

New York Daily News, 12/3/15

New York Daily News, 12/3/15

The headline was a sharp rebuke to the shameless politicians who promise prayers for the victims of gun violence while refusing to do anything about the guns. Calling them “cowards who could truly end gun scourge” but instead “hide behind pious platitudes,” the newspaper offered a blunt theological assertion: “God isn’t fixing this.”[ii]

The daily office Old Testament readings for early Advent, calling the world to account for its evils, say much the same thing. To those who refuse to “renounce the dictates of our own wicked hearts,”[iii] the prophets imagine God declaring, “You made your own bed. Now lie in it.” (Thankfully, the prophets always redeem their rants in the end with comforting decrees of mercy and salvation).

However, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas was not comfortable with the Daily News’ riff on the old biblical idea that God sometimes gets fed up with human folly. His photoshopped revision was posted on Facebook and Twitter.

God hears our prayers

Of course this clueless retort (note the unfortunate juxtaposition of the headline with the red banner above it) did not actually answer the question of whether – or how – God acts in the world to “fix” things. It was just a clumsy attempt by a presumed gun lover to change the subject. Platitudes about prayer in the abstract are safe because they have no consequences, unlike real prayer, which always implicates the petitioner in a process of change and action. If we pray for an end to gun violence, we obligate ourselves to do all in our power to reduce it. Prayer is a call for action; it politicizes what we pray for. Prayer is not simply leaving things up to God. It is an act of volunteering to be part of God’s solution.

But is there such a thing as God’s solution? Does God – can God – fix things? It is not a question with a clear and simple answer. Human freedom has thrown a monkey wrench into the story of the world, while God has surrendered absolute control of the narrative. If we make a mess of things, God is not an indulgent parent rushing in to cover for us. We don’t get to multiply our weapons and then wonder why God allows so much violence.

So where does that leave us? In the Advent section of his Christmas Oratorio,[iv] W. H. Auden describes a closed-in, godless world where hope is absent.

Alone, alone about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind …
The Pilgrim Way has led to the abyss.

But what if we are not alone? What if there is a God who can make the abyss into a way? What if an unexpected future is breaking through the walls of our self-made prison? The Advent message is to embrace this hope, as we take off the garments of sorrow and affliction to welcome the God of joy into our midst.

Whatever the “solution” (salvation) may be in the tangled histories of the world and the soul, it is a long-term, sometimes excruciating, process, requiring honest engagement with the consequences of human sin in acts of confession, repentance, reconciliation, justice, healing, sacrifice, and transformation. And I submit that these are not simply things we do with God, as though God were only a helper from the outside. They are things we do in God, or God does in us, as our own intentions and actions become the embodiment – the incarnation – of divine purpose.

So yes, I believe that God is fixing the world, but not in the short run. And not without us.

 

 

 

 

 

[i] I preached on both these events at the time, with mixed results. Some were not so ready to find traces of God in social movements which trouble the powers-that-be. One church subsequently banned me from its pulpit for being too “partisan.” Guilty as charged.

[ii] New York Daily News, December 3, 2015.

[iii] Baruch 2:8

[iv] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 273

Reprise: Ten Ways to Keep a Holy Advent

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Here in Puget Sound, the first Sunday of Advent has begun in darkness, fog, and frost. It is for many of us a deeply felt time, the season where we wait expectantly for the dawning of the New. The spiritual practice of waiting is not a state of passivity, but rather the cultivation of attention, lest we miss what is being offered to us in the unfolding of God’s future.

I do not usually do re-runs of old posts, but some readers found last December’s “Ten Ways to Keep a Holy Advent” a useful list, and you can access it here. I hope you will find some blessing in it. And please feel free to share it with your communities.