Sunday, September 20, 2009

failures of imagination

Some days, more things happen than others. Today, for instance, I:
1. bought a ticket to go back to Chicago for a long weekend
2. was nearly run over by a frightened deer while hiking
3. remembered something important that I had started to forget.

This time last year I was in the midst of my introduction to active non-violence - reading Walter Wink, releasing balloons outside of a prison, watching "A Force More Powerful", attending events with names like "Musical Resistance Concert"...and learning about my own violence.

When I'm immersed in social justice-y work (working on an organic farm and trying to get healthy produce available to people regardless of income, for example), its easy to group my world into good and bad people. Last year, the bad people were Cambodian government officials ordering political assassinations and forced evictions, and everyone involved in perpetuating social and environmental injustice in the garment industry. This year, it's the government-agribusiness alliance that ensures that the most accessible food in the US is unhealthy for both land and people and everyone involved in keeping farmworkers politically marginalized so that they remain a cheap, mobile source of labor.

When I started learning about non-violence, I expected it to focus on empowering the oppressed, letting the "good" win, punishing the bad guys. I recognized in the tactics for countering violence efforts to force the oppressors to recognize the humanity of the oppressed, for the men with crowbars to look the women guarding their homes in the eye and feel some sort of empathy.

What I was unprepared for was that this has to be reciprocal. That true non-violent conflict resolution required the oppressed and their allies look in the eyes of the company thugs and military police with their batons and recognize something shared humanity and feel some sort of empathy. That I would have to start dismantling my carefully constructed categories of "good people" and "bad people". That I had a lot of violence to deal with within myself.

I found two portions of Graham Greene's "The Power and the Glory" particularly challenging. I wrote:
The first passage gives the thoughts of an on-the-run Catholic priest walking through the Mexican jungle while a man he knows will betray him rides his mule beside him:
“But at the center of his own faith there always stood the convincing mystery – that we were made in God’s image. God was the parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge. Something resembling God dangled from the gibbet or went into odd attitudes before the bullets in a prison yard or contorted itself like a camel in the attitude of sex. He would sit in the confessional and hear the complicated dirty ingenuities which God’s image had thought out, and God’s image shook now, up and down on the mule’s back, with the yellow teeth sticking out over the lower lip, and God’s image did its despairing act of rebellion with Maria in the hut among the rats. He said ‘Do you feel better now? Not so cold, eh? Or so hot?’ and pressed his hand with a kind of driven tenderness upon the shoulders of God’s image.”

God was the pastor, but he was also the pastor’s son, imprisoned for trying to stealing a necklace from a woman on a moto, and the guard at the prison, asking bribes for every movement, every scrap of food. God was the journalist and his son leaving the gym on Friday evening, and something resembling God drove by and shot them both – 5 bullets taking two lives.

I choke on those words. In this country where the injustice present in every society is done so openly, it’s so easy to know who to hate. I can feel that in myself as I sit on my bicycle in traffic behind yet another Lexus SUV with an RCAF (Royal Cambodian Armed Forces) license plate shuttling its well-fed occupants around as they plunder their own people. I can feel it in my body even as I type these words.

Greene’s priest continues to reflect on the power of all human beings being made in God’s image with the following words:

“When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity – that was a quality of God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”

My world is once again littered with failures of imagination, with big categories I put people in and label "enemy", categories that I use as excuses to ignore "the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth...". I have a long way to go. There's a lot of my world that needs to be complicated by the gray - the honest acknowledgment of the tensions of my own life and choices, and willingness to see those same tensions in the lives of the people I disagree with.

But at the center of my own faith has always stood the convincing mystery - that we were made in God's image.

1 comment:

  1. Wow.

    Simply, Wow.

    That is a great article. You can really write, and you have an incredible background and experience to draw from. You need to have a bigger audience.