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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Essay On Belonging

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord raises a question of belonging. For when Jesus was brought to the temple in accord with the law and custom of his times, he became united culturally with the Jewish people. “Since the children share in blood and flesh,
Jesus likewise shared in them,” Heb 2:14

Kairos is a community of people who like those who awaited the Messiah, long for Shalom. As the song says, we are a people who look east. We will never surrender to the answer of war, but have said reluctantly the metaphor that we will be one with God’s soldiers. We want peace so like Simeon and Anna we speak the words we have in public spaces. We take ourselves into places of wide belonging, crossroads, entrances, spaces of celebration, prayer, worship, honest labor. And in step with a people with whom we share these times we display the consolation of our faith. And how do we do so, if without a sense of the truth? Perceived in faith, we recognize that privileged place is ours in which to stand and make known the bounty of God’s love.

Sentiments of recognition and consolation were spoken by the prophetess Anna: “she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Lk 2:38). The vision of Jerusalem that Anna beheld was one held in Kairos. It existed for her to belong there. And the redemption of Jerusalem meant the reification of all things to their intended purpose in Providence. But I suppose the prophetess thinks as I do. She spoke the words of a nationalistic cause, after all, exploiting an ambiguity now divisible into paradigms of church and state. Today America the Beautiful might be sung.

We glance at the question of faithful citizenship. In Latin we can see the significance of faith and belonging fused together in the Latin word fide. It means faithful and is used by U.S. marines in their slogan Semper Fi, forever faithful. In contrast, the film High Fidelity staring John Cusack humored commitment. Professionalism is mocked by some anarchists, and it is this attitude that was formulated by the philosopher Marcuse in The One Dimensional Man which expresses aversion of the technocratic class. Closer to home, when I would profess to dismantle the myopic self-interest of nationalism, still I cry wolf. Why have I made appeal to the Constitution of the United States in my activism? The problem of radical commitment was first posed to me in a class with Sr. Peggy, a liberation theologian of El Salvador, who once spoke of ecofeminism and began from the beginning to raise our consciousness with the question: to whom do you belong? The ploy was disorienting but ancient: the philosopher Diogenes of Athens said, “I am a citizen of the world.” And to this day, if I am less impartial then Diogenes, at least by faith the borders of my political identity expand far beyond the narrow confines of the U.S. The community I belong to is Christian. And we are many. We live through out the world yet I belong to more than these.

My bond with the living includes my neighbor—of whatever faith. The commandment to love one’s neighbor means that a Christian must love every human being. In the ‘New World’ where inhabitants were said by society to be barbarians, the Good Samaritan argument had been applied by Francisco de Vitoria, Bartolom√© de las Casas, Luis de Molina and Domingo De Soto. It would offend this teaching of Christ to have nothing to do with non-Christians. A protestant reformer, Hugo Grotius, inherited the wisdom of Catholic critics of the Spanish conquest saying: ‘the protection of infidels from injury (even from injury by Christians) is never unjust.” Today humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, as it would have been in the Darfur, finds a source of moral authority in Maimonides in Mishneh Torah XI, a glossing of Leviticus 19:16 “It one person is able to save another and does not save him, he transgresses the commandment, Neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.”

It is common for scholarship to speak of belonging in terms of rights. The theory of rights one applies will mean belonging to a particular group, for instance by rights of citizenship, or more broadly based on the idea of a totality, rights will refer back to ones own humanity. So argues Mervyn Frost, a professor of international relations at King’s College London: “Having these rights does not depend on the largesse of the state within which one finds oneself.” The significance is telling: it means that belonging to a group is not necessary for the defense of human rights. Hillel Steiner is a theorist who argues in An Essay on Rights (1994) that human beings possess human rights and that they support claims against others beyond the boundaries of the state:

“Should a historical theory of distributive justice recognize state (or any other political) boundaries as having basic significance? It seems not. If the initial rights belong to all human beings and apply to all natural resources, it is hard to see why political boundaries should affect the validity or strength of a person’s claims.”

According to Steiner, the defense of human rights does not require belonging to a nation-state. In theory, belonging to a state is superfluous to the actual possession of rights and therefore unnecessary for one to make appeal to a state’s own contract to uphold said rights.

In this brief sketch of belonging, the notion of place has so far been central. Even more crucial a dimension than space is time. As the great Rabbi Abraham Heschel said, “Technical civilization is man’s [sic] conquest of space…. But time is the heart of existence.” And Martin Luther King referred American’s to the place they had known in a common past, the “Land where my father’s died, land of the pilgrim’s pride.” Thus I belong not only to the land of the living but of the dead and gone. Perhaps in part this is the significance of the Catholic credo; it states a shared belief held among Catholics in all provinces, territories, nations and states. “I believe in one God, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is visible and invisible.” The faithful perspective of time does not stop short of a static present. With the metaphor of a wave rising and just as surely will crash on the shore, so a duty on present peoples is imposed by peoples of the past writes Pope Paul VI in his papal encyclical Popularum Progressio, On the Development of Peoples:

“Civilizations are born, develop and die. But humanity is advancing along the path of history like the waves of a rising tide encroaching gradually on the shore. We have inherited from past generations, and we have benefited from the work of our contemporaries: for this reason we have obligations toward all, and we cannot refuse to interest ourselves in those who will come after us to enlarge the human family. The reality of human solidarity, which is a benefit for us, also imposes a duty.” §17.

Thus, in Catholic Social Teaching one way a sense of immediacy is found is through the sense of community with those who have born out advances for human good. My faith is dynamic not only in belonging to a people of this present moment, but in belonging to “the reality of human solidarity.”

Because the complexity of one’s character as a being in time is frowned upon by many today, a faithful individual will likely confront a contradictory message. One frequently espoused is that of a realist who supposes we are all aspirants of wealth. It was this assumption that as “profit-maximizing individualism” that was condemned by Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous sermon February 4, 1968 titled The Drum Major Instinct. His virulent critique suggested that to distinguish oneself in such a consumerist way was the opposite path taken by those who forge their human personality; it meant belonging to a herd. We do not belong to a people by way of assumption; we are not consumption animals. The antidote proposed by King to remedy the drum major instinct meant that in the facts of faith, Christ alone could forge one’s dignity as a person. Similarly, our readings for the Presentation of the Lord recall the Malachi prophesy of the coming Messiah:

Yes, he is coming…
But who will endure the day of his coming?

He will sit refining and purifying silver,
and he will purify the sons of Levi,
Refining them like gold or like silver

Thus a person of faith holds a vision not only of a past but of a present transformed one day to come. It is this future of possible worlds that Pope Paul VI said has gathered us in “history like the waves of a rising tide.” It is his allusion of a powerful surge among people for the common good.

Berenice A. Carroll has added to peace research a complement to the realist literature of international relations (IR). Her study of kinds of power left out by mainstream IR includes most obvious “innovative power” or the power to adopt new foundations for social arrangements. This is the faculty of imagining crucial to gaining the shores of collective human dignity. Three further powers cited by IR structuralists Roger Tooze and Craig Murphy suggest the ways in which every individual belongs to that commonly valued history:

1) Disintegrative power…the power that large masses of people always have, by undirected but convergent individual action, to break down social organizations, economic institutions, and political structures.

2) Inertial power…the power of resistance that takes no organized or politically conscious form, but which confronts topdogs in all their efforts to organize societies according to their will and design…

3) Explosive power: the power of the ‘powerless’ to express their discontent or even rage by behavior and demands which exceed…the moral norms which ordinary bind most members of society.

Tooze and Murphy argue that it is precisely the invisibility of such powers that is constructed by prevailing powerholders. Much noise is made so as to tune-out modes of collective power that would displace them. Much like King’s critique of the Drum Major, Tooze and Murphy argue that we have further ways of knowing, realizing, constructing the future we want. Their project primarily is one of epistemology citing Steve Smith “Epistemology matters because it determines of what we can have knowledge.” Included in their analysis of international relations is also the knowledge of subjects commonly ignored, i.e. the oppressed. Thus, the question becomes, am I knowledgeable of ‘the poor’ and do I realize that in my belonging “to the least of these” I am powerful?

To sum up, belonging involves both place and time dimensions. Belonging may ultimately be about ending up somewhere. This end, we could call our purpose. Life without purpose is described in Margaret Atwood’s disutopia The Handmaid’s tale when the apparent achievement of a women’s culture comes with the peril of ignorance for what life once was. The narrator remembers that ‘the Commander’ had said that women can’t count: “What the Commander said is true. One and one and one and one doesn’t equal four. Each one remains unique, there is no way of joining them together. They cannot be exchanged, one for another. They cannot replace each other. Nick for Luke or Luke for Nick. Should does not apply.” Her past and current loves stand apart from her and out of reach; she cannot have them, she can not call them “hers.” Without a sense of belonging she feels utterly isolate. And in the patriotic religiosity of her society, it was called a sacrifice. “That’s one of the things they do. They force you to kill, within yourself.”

One failing of this essay is the unremarked upon necessity to forgive ourselves for what we have done and also failed to do. To speak as a Catholic, for instance, is also to have responsibility for the slaughters of innocent during the crusades. To speak as an American citizen is also to be guilty for the trail of tears, and of the many My Lai’s and Fallouja’s. As a friend who advocated for women priests once pointed out, I have no excuse. It was something of an apology that Rawls made in his essay Two Concepts of Rules. It “necessarily involves the abdication of full liberty to act on utilitarian or prudential grounds.” Does this mean that every act of religious conviction is hopelessly tainted? Indeed, the participation in any practice may be flawed. The sociologist and political scientist Max Weber wrote that ‘all knowledge of cultural reality…is always knowledge from particular points of view.” More simply, Fr. Daniel Berrigan has said that faith is where your ass is at. Confession: I chose not to attend Mass today at the Chapel of La Strada but have instead written—from the viewpoint along Devon where the White Rose currently resides (although members were today considering the move to a new home). But tonight I will say Deo Gratias in the vernacular of Kairos.

It is our common purpose to recognize hope and then spread it, to be a fire that lights other fires. We will agree that we need to ask about where we have been, as well as to ask about where we are going, (including among the ‘we’ all who are most needy).So once more I suggest that we remember from the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus blessed the poor, the meek, the merciful and from among other frail humans he also vaulted the peacemakers “for they shall be children of God”. In marking the presentation of the Lord, the Church emphasizes a common innocence: “Since the children share in blood and flesh, Jesus likewise shared in them,” (Heb 2:14) What is indicative of the Church’s identification of Jesus, the child, is that in his exposed human innocence the Lord was made to belong. Our celebration of the Presentation of the Lord can mean nothing short of this vindication of the human person in relation to the public. On the one hand this public persona can be said to be “profit-maximizing” in the sense of a renewal of human worth. On the other this public identity means for us a duty to likewise incarnate ourselves more fully in relationship with ‘the poor’. More expansive, George Washington Carver, African-American scientist (1864-1943) said, “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong.” Dorothy Day called such belonging “the duty of delight.” Finally, in the lesson of the Christ figured as a child the Church shows us how God’s reality—true belonging—is both burden and gift.

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