Waking Up In A Contentious World

August 8th, 2010  |   

Thomas DeGloma has written an interesting article in the summer issue of The Hedgehog. It has an intriguing title—“Waking Up in a Contentious World.”

The article begins with an account of the March 2008 four-day gathering in Silver Spring, Maryland, of over one hundred veterans of the wars in the Middle East. The event was called “Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan” and was organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War.

The autobiographical data gives testimony to the fact that these veterans have had a change of heart about their own rationales or ideological justifications for the war they participated in and now condemn. DeGloma cites an example of this by quoting from testimony given by Eleonai “Eli” Israel, an Army National Guard Specialist.

“Like many after September 11th I wanted to serve, again. I felt I owed something more to my country after my years of training. I trusted my president and my leadership to tell me the truth. I also trusted my own integrity. I knew that I would never willingly do anything that I knew to be immoral or wrong…. I reasoned that my actions during these missions were justified in the name of ‘self-defense.’ However, I came to realize my perception was wrong. I was in a country I had no right to be in, violating the lives of people, and doing so without regard to the same standards of dignity and respect that we as Americans hold our own homes and our own lives to.”

Eli is describing, says DeGloma, “a major transformation of consciousness, an awakening in which he realized his old perceptions and beliefs were wrong.”

The experience of war may be one place where awakenings occur, but one need not march off to battle for a change of heart—a new way of looking at the past, present or future. 

In this issue of Notes I shall focus on the subject of awakenings.

Guilt—What The Skunk Leaves Behind

In Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, guilt for the murder of King Duncan clings to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Duncan’s blood will not be washed away. Lady Macbeth rubs her hands, as if to cleanse them, but cries out, “Here’s the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” Blood is Shakespeare’s metaphor for guilt.

I think of guilt as the rancid smell left behind after the skunk has fled. It permeates the air and saturates those left behind.

Guilt is often an inevitable emotion that follows an awakening. In the case of Army National Guard Specialist Eli Israel, you can be sure that his changed perspective on the war led him to say such things as “How could I have been so naive as to trust President Bush and my leadership? How could I have done the things required of me in the war—participating in the bloodshed of innocent people? How could I have been so blind?”

I suspect all of us could claim guilt for past actions or perceptions which we regret once our eyes are opened after an awakening has occurred. The guilt may come over how we have treated someone in the past. Perhaps the guilt is related to some past previous prejudice we harbored around race, class, religion, gender or ethnicity.

One of the most difficult aspects associated with guilt is the fact that an awakening often causes a person to believe their past was wasted because of certain choices made,   opportunities squandered. Guilt then leads to remorse and regret for lost or misdirected time—time viewed as beyond redemption. In the case of war, it is hard for a nation to say a particular war should not have been fought, because we do not want to think that lives were “lost in vain.” This could well be true for any profession, any commitment—the fear that the past was wasted and cannot be reclaimed. 

The life of Saul, depicted in the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles, is a vivid illustration of what I am talking about. Saul was a persecutor of Christians who suddenly had an awakening on the road to Damascus. The lyrics from a Simon and Garfunkel song could well have been sung by Saul, who took the name Paul after his awakening: “I am blinded by the light of God and truth and right and I wander in the night without direction.”

Paul’s awakening results in temporary blindness because the eyes of perception must adjust to the startling brightness of a new truth. Paul’s experience offers a paradigm of hope for anyone tempted to feel that a redemptive future cannot be salvaged from a shipwrecked past.

I do believe that guilt, with its unquenchable thirst for forgiveness, can only be satisfied by an overflowing reservoir of grace. The question then for those of us who live in a contentious, conflicted and ever changing world is simply this: Where can we find that well from which we are able to draw strength enough to continue the journey? A step forward is possible only if one believes there is a well somewhere up ahead.

A Harsh Awakening In Our Local Jail

Years ago, while I was the pastor at St. John’s Church here in Charleston, I received a frantic call from my senior warden. “Jim, meet me at the jail. Nellie (not her real name) was just arrested.”

On my way to the jail I wondered what Nellie—an elderly, retired teacher and respected church member—could have possibly done to end up on the wrong side of the law.

When I arrived at the jail I was informed that Nellie had been distracted by a friend while shopping and inadvertently put a small item into her pocket rather than the shopping cart. After checking out, a security guard stopped her as she left the store and called the police.

Within a short time, we were able to free Nellie. Shaken and dazed, she returned home. In a couple of days we discovered that Nellie had had an awakening behind bars.

Prior to Nellie’s arrest, she had been an outspoken opponent of the daily feeding program established at the church for the poor—the Manna Meal. She was unhappy seeing these people off the street in her beloved church. They were, in her eyes, dirty and ugly.

After her incarceration—brief as it was—Nellie changed her tune. She confessed to me that prior to being arrested she had never thought that she might be in the same boat as one of the street people at the Manna Meal. Her arrest had awakened her to a reality that had previously been hidden from her.

Leonard Cohen has written words I love: “Ring the bell that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Life has a way of cracking us open in ways that seem unfair, confrontational, even cruel. Experience tells me that those moments often allow for light and new awakenings. 

Awakening To One’s Own Strength

There is an old children’s hymn that goes like this: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong, they are weak but He is strong.”

I don’t want to sound like Christopher Hitchens, the atheist author of the book “God is Not Great,” but I must tell you that the words “they are weak but He is strong” make we wince every time I hear them sung. They don’t jive with my understanding of God.

A great God, in order to be strong, should have no need for human beings to be weak. No one, God included, should have to derive strength from someone else’s weakness.

During 46 years of ordained ministry, I have encountered lots of people who have continued to internalize those words from a child’s hymn long after they have left the crib, passed through adolescence and moved into adulthood. In a weird way, God’s defined goodness and greatness, and the perfection of Jesus, have been intimidating and have thwarted their personal growth. External authority has had an undue influence in keeping folks from claiming and utilizing an innate strength bestowed upon them at birth.

I think centuries of theological and creedal authority have cursed us with God’s bravado. All the attributed characteristics—omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence—have morphed God into a  bellowing Wizard of Oz figure who intimidates the Tin Men, Scarecrows and Cowardly Lions who travel life’s yellow brick roads.

I love the fact that the three weak-kneed characters finally come into their own power, not by any Wizard magic, but on their own as they discover along the way that they already possess the qualities they believe they lack. The Scarecrow, who desires a brain, has several good ideas. The Tin Man, who wants to be human, is kind and sympathetic. The Lion, threatened by his fear, finally faces danger, even though he is terrified.

Awakening to one’s own power, whether it is seen as a gift from God or not, is at the heart of human creativity, change and growth. When a person is not able to claim his or her innate power, that person is stripped of self confidence and reduced to unhealthy dependencies which fall back on someone else’s strength and authority.

I believe all of us possess an élan vital—a vital force, a life-giving urge capable of creating our own narratives again and again. Each one of us is born with this élan vital, this emerging spirit. Some call this spirit God. But all too often this élan vital is suppressed, even beaten out of us by parents, school, a variety of authorities, and yes, religion.

I truly believe that an awakening takes place—a life changing revelation—when a human being discovers this élan vital and claims the power to make creative adjustments and changes in the way life is to be perceived and lived from the cradle to the grave, and who knows, perhaps beyond what seems limited by time.

Sexual Awakening

The 2007 Tony Award winning Broadway rock musical “Spring Awakening” is a modern adaptation of a controversial 1891 play. The original play was about school children entering  puberty, speculating about their sexuality. It was banned in Germany for about a century, due to its subject matter— masturbation, abortion, homosexuality, child abuse and suicide—controversial but critical subjects.

Awakening to one’s own sexuality is no easy trip. Faced with an adult world’s avoidance, hypocrisy, lies, and twisted morality embedded in secular and religious teachings, it’s a wonder that any of us arrive at a sexual awakening on the way to adulthood.

Consider the response to Kate Chopin’s novel, “The Awakening,” published in 1899. Set in New Orleans and the Southern Louisiana coast, it caused a controversy that may have equaled the flap over the BP oil slick. Chopin’s novel challenged the social attitudes surrounding femininity and motherhood and was attacked for its frank expressions of female sexuality. The book eventually became a landmark of early feminism.

Over time I have seen enormous changes in terms of the awakening of our society around gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender orientation. The overturning by the U.S. District Court judge in California of Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage, has moved gay marriage another step forward in our nation. It is a landmark sexual awakening event.

The history of racial, sexual and social injustice of all types requires an awakening on the part of the people, the politicians and the courts in order that justice and mercy might be served. The deep moral intentions embedded in our nation’s religious and constitutional intentions must continually be stirred out of deep slumber by a variety of voices—some quiet and others noisy and confrontational. It takes a variety of tactics to change a village.

An Awakening In The Valley Of The Shadow Of Death

Here in Appalachia we are witnessing an awakening in the proverbial twenty-third Psalms’ valley of the shadow of death.

Do you member the explosion that took place just four months ago in the Massey Energy Company’s Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, just 30 miles from my home in Charleston—the one that took 29 lives?

I say remember because the media remind me of one of those pads you write on and then erase by lifting the plastic cover. Filled with mine disaster news back in April, the pad now contains other information—the BP oil spill, Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, the Arizona frenzy over immigration, and the hysteria over a proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New Your City. And, of course, American Idol—always American Idol.

The awakening that is presently taking place here around the mine disaster has to do with the fact that miners who worked in the Upper Big Branch mine are now surfacing to tell the truth about the unsafe conditions in the mine prior to the explosion. The unwritten code of silence—what goes on underground stays underground—is now being broken. 

Miners who feared Massey Energy intimidation—that they would be fired if they squealed about safety infractions—are now coming forward to speak. The guilt which hovers over the mountainous valleys from which coal is drawn may well be lifting as miners are awakening to their complicity in this tragedy and are proceeding down a path that may bring much needed change in the coal industry—change that protects miners and their jobs. That would be a tribute to the 29 dead miners and their families and friends.

What Your Mother Would Like You To Be When You Grow Up

John Conroy is a reporter who braved political pressure by writing newspaper reports about Chicago police who tortured black suspects into confessions for crimes they did not commit. His story is told in the July/August edition of the Columbia Journalism Review. Conroy is described as “the kind of reporter your mother dreamed you would grow up to be: dogged, driven, caring, righteous, cranky, smoldering, and moral.”

I haven’t been asked lately to preach an ordination sermon for a new minister. But if I were, I’d challenge the newly ordained to be that kind of minister— dogged, driven, caring, righteous, cranky, smoldering, and moral.

I’ve just finished a powerful book by a marvelous reporter, Meghan K. Stack—“Every Man In This Village Is A Liar: An Education In War.” Writing about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, her work is like a straight shot of whiskey in a bar where watered-down drinks are the standard fare. Her mother should be proud of her for writing such an honest-to-God book. It’s a pride-producing book.

Bottoms up—down the hatch—a 100-proof slug on the way to the belly. “Here is the truth: It matters what you do at war. It matters more than you ever want to know. Because countries, like people, have collective consciences and memories and souls, and the violence we deliver in the name of our nation is pooled like sickly tar at the bottom of who we are. The soldiers who don’t die for us come home again. They bring with them the killers they became on our national behalf, and sit with their polluted memories and broken emotions in our homes and schools and temples”

I think I’ve had enough truth, but Ms. Stack won’t let me up from her awakening and the awakening I must not avoid. “We Americans tell ourselves that we are fighting tyranny and toppling dictators. And we say this word, terrorism, because it has become the best excuse of all. We push into other lands, we chase the ghost of a concept, because it is too hard to admit that evil is already in our own hearts and blood is on our hands.”

In the next issue of Notes From Under the Fig Tree, I shall say more about this book. I invite you to do some preparatory homework by reading Ms. Stack’s remarkable writing.

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Nations will hammer swords into plows, their spears into sickles, there shall be no more training for war. Each person will sit under his or her fig tree in peace.
Micah 4:3 - 4