We meet the 1st and 3rd Thursdays at St. Gertrude's Ministry Center
(6214 N. Glenwood), beginning at 8:00 p.m. Folks are welcome to join us at anytime.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sorry, I seem to have misplaced my sackcloth...

Earlier this week I misread one of the references for Daily Reading. The reading was for the end of Esther 4, I think, when E. and her women fast before she approaches the king. I read the beginning of the chapter instead, which reveals Mordeccai’s response at first hearing the edict for the execution of all Jews.

“Mordeccai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and he cried out with a loud and bitter cry. He went up to the entrance of the king’s gate, for no one was allowed to enter the king’s gate in sackcloth” (4:1b-2).

M. unapologetically entered the most public place in the city to express his grief and proclaim the injustice that had befallen him and his people. It occurred to me as I entered this scene that this is what many peace-activists are doing via protest and demonstration. They are finding a way to mourn and to draw attention to issues and events that are a source of grief to them as individuals and as a people. The Jewish culture of Mordeccai and Esther’s time created a space for this type of demonstrative mourning, of accepting or allocating responsibility, of giving voice to a sadness that was present and alive. Now, we attribute such action to the insane or the exhibitionist. Sensible society has reached a level of sophistication and civility that leaves no room for such irrational methods. This leads to the question, if our culture—no, I will take more ownership than that—if I have become too polite for the abrasive and absurd means of public protest and symbolic action, in what alternative way do I create a space for feelings and troubles and injustice to be expressed and addressed? Or, do I just look away?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Turn from sin and live according to the Gospels”

Today, on the first day of Lent, I started my day with mass. I sat with my fellow students. I sat with Jesuits and sisters. I sat and waited to receive ashes. I waited and listened, searching for the meaning of the day. Hoping the priest would remind me why I was there; remind me what Ash Wednesday represented. If only after two decades of attending Ash Wednesday services I could be more grounded in the meaning behind the tradition.

But in my mind and in my heart, I was carrying my agenda for the day. I would not be returning to class after mass. I would be catching the el to head south. I would be a part of the dialogue at the Union League Club. I would be part of the presence outside of its doors. I would be sitting at a table and fasting through lunch. I would wait, and listen actively in order to assess the words of Brigadier General Tom Hemmingway as he gave his lecture, “Closing Guantanamo: Policy, Legal and National Security Concerns”.

As we traveled south, we read the cases of men imprisoned at Guantanamo. We read their names, their trials and the details of their continued detention.

When we reached the Union League Club, we opened our banners and we put on orange jumpsuits. We pulled hoods over our heads and processed to the front entrance.

There we stood. Masked. Solemn. Strong.

Our message read, “We are all human beings. End indefinite detention.”

Underneath the hood, I felt people stare at me. I felt their curiosity. I felt their indifference. I began to think of the men I represented. I began to imagine them standing in my place, on the streets of Chicago, as people walked by and nodded, as people walked by and gawked. I wondered at the shame one feels as a prisoner, made to wear a hood, made to wear a costume, made to feel inhuman. I wondered at the powerlessness of standing erect in the face of indifference, imprisoned.

I had the choice to walk away today. I had the choice to drop the banner. I had the choice to go to class. I had the choice to fast. The men at Guantanamo do not have these choices. Their protest is met by force-feeding.

As I sat inside the luncheon, I was impressed by the respectability of the lecture. I did not agree with all that was stated, but I could understand it. However, as the room was opened to questions, it became less respectable and more defensive, more ugly. Challenging questions were asked about the humanity of the men at Guantanamo, the detainees cleared for release and the facts surrounding recidivism.

Yet, these questions were met with policy answers. Constructive dialogue was lost. It became a game of terms, a duel of details, instead of communication about the issues.

Sitting at my table at the luncheon, I recalled a conversation our Kairos community had shared in preparation for this day. Following the example of Witness Against Torture actions, we took time to consider what the men in Guantanamo would want us to do in our action. We took time to reflect on what it means to represent them at a luncheon such as this one.

This reflection invited a prisoner from Guantanamo into the room with me. It sat him down next to me, facing me, watching and waiting for how I would react, waiting for how I would represent him in this room. Looking at me, he waited for little, expected more. He witnessed a disapproving look, a disgruntled nod. He witnessed finger tapping and note taking, but no voice came from me to represent him and his suffering.

Unsure of how to react to the discussion being had, unsure of how to register disapproval, I sat still. Unsure of how to take a stand and yet maintain common ground with the men at my table, and the professors and students surrounding me, I sat and thought hard about my inaction. How would they react if I walked out? If I shouted?

And still, how would a prisoner react to my silence? This is his life. This is three hours out of my day. This is his life.

I can sit and criticize my inaction in retrospect, as if I have gained courage to empower me in action the next time, but have I found that courage yet?

This morning at mass, I had realized this Ash Wednesday was different, it held new meaning for me. When I walked up to receive my ashes and looked in the priest’s eyes, he stared back and said, "Turn from sin and live according to the Gospels". This was the meaning of the day; this was what I had been waiting to hear. It was a challenge, from him to me, from the men at Guantanamo to my conscience.

I was challenged to see sin in a new way. To not only assess my weakness in day to day living, the weaknesses I always knew I possessed, but now a challenge to recognize my sin in the indefinite detention of men at Guantanamo. I was reminded of my weakness in my inaction at the luncheon, and challenged to look again at what it means to live the Gospel. To look again at what it means to love, and what active love involves, even requires.

Active love, thankfully, exists in community. As we returned to campus, I recalled the last (and only) other time that I had found myself in an orange jumpsuit. That time was one year ago today at a campus demonstration that Kairos Chicago held outside of Loyola’s student union. Last Ash Wednesday I had stood in an orange jumpsuit in front of my peers. This year I found myself standing in front of a new crowd, with the same loving community. My ability to hope, to learn, to be challenged and to challenge others stems from that community. Still weak and unsure, Lent begins this year in community, filled with the opportunity to actively love more, and more again.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

times being what they are...

Black Power and the Blessed Meek

Merton leads his essay, “From Nonviolence to Black Power,” with a quote from H. Rap Brown, “violence is as American as cherry pie” (210). These words resurface throughout the essay and lay the groundwork for the theme of racism and violence in America. Merton grapples with the “why” behind the volatile Black Power movement that came on the heels of a Civil Rights movement that worked by the principles of nonviolence. He notes that for many black Americans “Christian nonviolence remained ambiguous. The Negro felt himself imprisoned in the fantasy image of him devised by the white man…subservient, subhuman…there to be beaten over the head” (210). Made in this image, a man or woman practicing nonviolence is compromised. Instead of startling the aggressor this nonviolent man or woman merely reinforces the preconception that he or she is a passive subject primed for domination. The civilly liberated African Americans were left in the lurch. Even the demographic of whites who admired “black dignity at a distance” (211), did little to welcome these dignified persons into their communities. So, the black Americans decided to make themselves heard by speaking what Rap Brown calls “the American language” (211), namely, violence. White America heard and was glad (albeit alarmed); now that they were speaking the same language, white could respond to black in kind, feeling validated in their use of forceful repression as a legitimate response to a threat. In the end, Merton concedes he has no clear, final solution, but he indicates that it is important to recognize and acknowledge the real problem. The problem, he writes, is the system itself, a system of “violence, hatred, poison, cruelty and greed” (216).
Merton’s line about “the Negro” feeling imprisoned in an image which the white man had created for him brought my mind back to an African American Literature class I had in college in which we discussed the concept of “the mask.” The mask was an allusion to a false self that an African American would don in order to be acceptable and understood in white culture, a culture where his true self was bewildering and unwelcome. When reading Merton’s contemplations from other sources about the false/true self, I imagined that discovering the true self could not be done by searching but rather by allowing what already is to simply be. Bringing this back to the context of African Americans, civil rights, and Black Power: what happens when what is, is not allowed to be? Langston Hughes once poetically posed the question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” I think those of the Black Power movement would embrace the poet’s final speculation; it explodes.

In “Blessed are the Meek,” Merton begins by outlining what Christian non-violence is not. Namely, it is not an easy out for a person with an aversion to conflict. Rather, he describes it as, “the most exacting form of struggle” (249). There are a number of reasons for this. Part of the struggle is that with nonviolence you put yourself in a position of vulnerability: emotionally, ideologically, and physically. While the natural reaction of a person in such a position is to become defensive, the nonviolence practitioner does not defend him/her self but stands instead as a voice for that deep truth that is often lost in the cacophony of everyday chatter and loud shouts of greed, anger and despair. The battle of nonviolence is not a fight entered on behalf of oneself or for a particular demographic, it is for everybody. “Us vs. them” disintegrates and there is only “us,” all of us.
This ideal is not easily integrated into the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the average person. Merton is well aware of the challenge and draws not only from his own insight but also from the wisdom and experience of Gandhi. He writes, “Fully consistent practice of nonviolence demands a solid metaphysical basis both in being and in God” (249). For the Christian, Merton asserts, this basis is found in Christ and in obediently acting out his presence in the world. Merton points specifically to the Sermon on the Mount as a detailed description of Christ’s intention for the Kingdom. He continues to emphasize the great significance of humility. This is not a term intended to imply weakness, passivity, or self-effacement. Rather, it is a word for an attitude that is rooted in an awareness of one’s need to trust in God and to measure every thought, word and deed in the light of a reverence for life.
One need not look far to see that nonviolence is more than a tactic, it is a way of being. As I perceive it, the way of nonviolence becomes present in the world through communication. It communicates with words and silence, with action and stillness. The means of communication are as significant as what is being said and are likely more powerful. One of the things that stands out most to me is that true nonviolent communication listens, even, and at times especially, to the “enemy.” “A test of our sincerity…is this: are we willing to learn something from the adversary” (255). It is so important to have such a test. How easy it is to look at our enemy and see only evil, to see oneself as right and the other as wrong, thus deepening the division that we claim we are attempting to mend.