Tag Archives: violence

A language of peace (part 2)

So on a related theme to my previous post, I think I have found the one place in which this language of violence I speak of seems not to be used.

Whereas in almost every sphere of life violent imagery seems to be common place, there is one area where, as far as possible, it seems to be studiously avoided … when we’re talking about actual violence.So wars are described as “conflicts” because it is a bit less scary, the bodies of the innocent dead are described as “collateral damage” because it doesn’t sound too ghastly, and aggression is described as “security”; a word which used to mean safe but somehow doesn’t any more.

Has any one seen an armed forces recruitment film recently? They are truly terrifying … because they are not in the least bit terrifying. At no point do they seem to think it necessary to mention that you might get killed or seriously injured by the violent acts of others, nor that your soul will be scarred for the rest of your life by the violence you will perpetrate yourself.

They speak instead of adventure and excitement, of opportunities and education, of comradeship and personal development. And guess what: those are all things I approve of and values I espouse. They are things I think every person; including every young person who has had limited options thus far who are those primarily targeted by these insidious campaigns; should be able to access.

I’m just not sure that the military is the best placed institution to be providing them. No, hold on. I am sure. I am absolutely sure. I think they should be found in independent art projects: in theatre and dance and and creativity; I think they should be found in community activism and the service of one another; I think they should be found in a context of peace and hope.

Just as it is dangerous that we unthinkingly describe our everyday circumstances with the language of violence; it is equally dangerous when we fail to call out violence and aggression for what it really is. So let’s call a spade, a spade. And a war, a war.

And then, named as such, let’s choose to say no.

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We are nature defending herself

We gathered in the foyer of the British Museum, underneath a banner for the latest exhibition; Sunken Cities, Egypt’s Lost Worlds. We weren’t queueing for tickets; we stood in silence, in a circle, as an act of witness to the destruction being caused in the pursuit of profit by the company sponsoring that exhibition – BP.

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Holding a Quaker Meeting is a very simple protest – if that is what it even is – that means space is gently occupied by a group of peaceful people, whose presence draws attention to something everyone would be able to see anyway, if they were to look. Not just BP’s logo – that’s obvious – but casting a light on the all of the systemic violence that has brought that corporation into one of our museums in the first place. BP are not sponsoring our museums and art galleries because they have a great love of art, culture and history – they are there because they need to sanitise their image, and to ensure their view of their world remains hegemonic.

Normally in Quaker Meeting I flit between letting my mind wander wherever it goes, and gently bringing my attention back to my breath, to the flowers or water on the table, to the light coming through the window, to the week I’ve had or the week coming, or to the most recent piece of ministry. In the British Museum, I found my mind settled on the words written on a banner held aloft at the COP 21 protests in Paris:

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“We are not fighting for nature – we are nature defending herself.”

In these words there is a sense of hope and interconnection that startles, baffles, and comforts. “We are nature defending herself” speaks of a radical break with the status quo – capitalism’s constant thirst for more resources and ever expanding growth, that is so often achieved to the detriment of societies and cultures, and the destruction of forests, deserts, rivers, lakes, seas, air, animals, birds, insects, fish. Deeper though, those words act as a break with the standard rhetoric of many environmental campaigns and activists; that system tweaks are all that are needed, not systemic and cultural change. I’m convinced we need a radical change in how we use the earth’s resources, and that that has to be nurtured within a radical shift in our relationship with nature, of how we see ourselves in relation to nature.

Stepping back a little, it seems violence is made possible when we are able to effectively distance ourselves from the victim. At a talk I attended recently, a member of Veterans for Peace described the psychological reconditioning that takes place in military training as as important as the physical preparation for war. In his book ‘On Killing’, David Grossman described how in the First World War many soldiers – physically prepared but not mentally reconditioned – ended up not firing their weapons, but by the Vietnam War and onwards the military had ‘successfully’ raised the kill rate, by training soldiers differently. The VfP member described being taught to ‘shoot at the mass’ (rather than the ‘body’, or ‘person’) from distances that made it harder to relate to the target.

Is it trite to suggest a similar reconditioning in terms of our relationship with ‘nature’? Have we been taught to see ourselves as inherently separate from the rest of the earth, to see the earth as an object? Has this allowed us to accept and participate in ecocide?

Have we been conditioned to see nature as an object to meet our own ends, rather than something we have an inherent, deep connection with, something (everything?!) that has value in and of itself? Do we know how to look at a tree, an animal, a river, an insect, a whole ecosystem, as something inherently valuable, regardless of whether we manage to extract resources from it, consume it, even visit it to ‘enjoy’ it? How would we (re)learn how to do that? Could we?

George Monbiot explored some of these themes in ‘Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding’, a fascinating account of how areas of the Earth’s lands and seas might be allowed to return to wild forest and ocean. He dares us to imagine hundreds of acres of forest, with wolves roaming free in Scotland and wild boar in the south of England, and at the same time imagine what rewilding ourselves would mean; indeed, he suggests it would take a degree of rewilding our hearts and minds to find the idea of boars and wolves palatable. For this to be possible, for this healing of our planet to take place, it feels like we need new stories (or to remind ourselves of old ones) about what a healthy relationship with nature is about; relearning this will be deeply spiritual, as we redetermine what and how we value, how we understand our roles and relationships. It will be a grand shift, away from capitalism, growth, extraction, and profit.

And so when corporations like BP look at our world and only see oil to be extracted and profit squeezed from the very rocks, we should balk. And when corporations invade our cultural spaces to legitimise their worldview, we should act to expose them.

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Crucifixion

As we approach Easter, Christians are struck with something of a dilemma. This ‘faith’ we ‘practise’ throughout the year, with a God we can identify and align with, with it’s comfortable, reassuring rituals, it’s (broadly speaking) agreed upon beliefs and structures and doctrines all suddenly, brutally, turns in on itself. We’re suddenly faced with the horror of a story in which our God – that we think of as the source of our meaning – is tortured to death. On the cross, we witness God abandoning God, “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?” – my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? – and as Christ dies, there is a shocking image, of the temple curtain being ripped in two; the very centre of the most holy space is shown empty. That which kept people distant, estranged from from God (and a path to God) was destroyed. God on a cross, denying the presence of God, and the structure that humans had constructed around God being emptied of it’s meaning.

How are we meant to even begin to understand this?

Maybe, that’s the wrong question. To ‘understand’ means to ‘perceive the intended meaning of’ –  to understand something means to appreciate why and how it works, but it can also mean to find something comfortable within the boundaries of our own lives, to incorporate an event into our world view. We understand each other only as much as we can make each other palatable; understanding means reconciling something with our own framework, within our own narratives. This is because, whenever we ‘perceive the intended meaning of’ something, we are seeing that thing – whatever it is – through our own lenses, from the benefit of our own journeys, through our own experiences, and we attach meaning onto the object of our gaze from all of those experiences and encounters. And of course, this is often a good thing; our ability to understand is an incredible function that helps us to interact with the world we encounter in a whole multitude of different ways, all the time, with barely a thought; we are incredibly good at understanding things!

However, we cannot, I believe, “understand” the crucifixion – the crucifixion cuts through our understanding, uncouples it, takes it away. At the heart of the Christian story is a radical death of meaning. There is something utterly beyond this story; rather than explaining it, understanding it, we’re faced with the fact we don’t know, that we’re lost, that we’re broken, that we’re alone. To make the crucifixion familiar – to understand it – is to miss the point entirely. To encounter Christ on the cross means to see our own temple curtain ripped in two. We’re exposed to the reality that the narratives we put together – and we see them all the time in our religions, in our cultural practices, in our economics – do little to fill a gap we believe exists between us and God; indeed, that the very gap has been taken away (that the curtain has been destroyed). The crucifixion shines a light back on to the very thing we believe will fulfil us, that will take us beyond the curtain – our Church, our image of God, our ethical or religious framework, our money, our jobs, whatever – and it declares that these things are no longer necessary.

This was something that the disciples encountered; right up until the garden of Gethsemene they were ready to tool up, to take Jerusalem, to rise up violently against the Romans. They had a very powerful story and narrative, and (literally) in the name of Jesus Christ they were sticking to it! However, at the very point that they went to defend Christ – or, perhaps, to defend their belief in that structure of meaning – Jesus turns to them and tells them to put down their weapons, that something different was going to happen. The crucifixion cut the disciples loose from the narrative – of, it seems, revolutionary violence – that they had built around Christ and what he was going to lead them to do. No wonder they ran away – I think I would have done too! The disciples were estranged from the dominant understanding within their particular group, they were left lost, broken, and meaningless, they were forced to encounter their Christ – who was ‘meant’ to lead them to victory – instead removing the very thing (their narrative) that they thought would save them.

I found myself thinking about the crucifixion last week when reading Tony Blair’s piece on the Rwandan genocide; on a day that perhaps we should have been encountering the senseless barbarity of that 100 day genocide – and reminding ourselves that any narrative we try to attach to it will fail to allow us to encounter the reality of it – Blair instead encouraged us to remember the 8% economic growth that Rwanda is enjoying, that the country is open to investors, that education is blooming, that the country is “healing”. Somehow, this grated; meaning and understanding were being drawn out of an event that was ultimately meaningless, beyond our narratives, beyond our comprehension. Blair was trying to make the most horrific genocide palatable, understandable and therefore – perhaps – forgettable. For me, remembering the Rwandan genocide means denying it meaning, remembrance means not trying to understand it, it means not compartmentalising it into something I can get my small little mind around.  For me, Blair (probably without meaning to) wanted us to think “we can’t understand this utter barbarism, but we can understand economic growth, so let’s think about that instead!” Instead, we should be reminding ourselves that we have no ability to grasp the reality of what happened there, and that, on some level, that that’s OK. To fail to understand, to be powerless in the face of reality, is a big part of what it means to be human. It is in that position that we might begin to encounter reality, with all it’s struggles, pains, incomprehensions, antagonisms. Rather than building a (new) construction of meaning, encountering the crucifixion is to demonstrate the weakness of our narratives, the destruction of meaning.

I’ll finish with this – the crucifixion-resurrection story is about hope, but rather than restoring our sense of hope (which I think is the most common reading), the crucifixion cuts us loose, it sends us spiralling off, it removes hope. To ‘have hope’ means to have hope in something; a story, a narrative, a construction of meaning that even in the overwhelming face of reality, it will all be OK  (“you never encounter an atheist in a foxhole.” – i.e. at the point where reality is becoming brutally real, we demand a narrative (“God”) that will remove us from it.) Instead, the crucifixion invites us to encounter a God of absolute weakness, of a a complete lack of hope – again, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I’m quite in to the Guardian’s weekend supplement, especially the “This Column Will Change Your Life” towards the back, which this week was entitled ‘The case against hope‘. After exploring how people react differently to different trauma’s, the writer quotes Derrick Jensen – an environmental activist – as saying “A wonderful thing happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realise you never needed it in the first place… you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.”

In peace.

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