Carve Space

 Cutting Cheese.

Cutting Cheese.

Let us think about the spaces in this world we carve out for ourselves and live within, physical spaces, and mental spaces. There’s that Emerson quote I like (if you excuse the exclusive language), “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” To my mind that captures a reality we’re all familiar with - though we may be, geographically and physically, near another person, our worlds may in fact be poles apart. When it comes to our everyday lives, the friends we have, the company we keep, the communities of which we are a part, or when it comes to our mental space, the beliefs we have, our assumptions, our worldviews, or even our sense of the sacred in our lives, we can often discern that there is a gulf between what an edifying and affirming ideal would look like, and what the reality on the ground within our lives looks like; that drains us, or drains even our very humanity, exhausting us to the core of our being.

'Anger'

Take a very simple example, the disapproval or anger of another. We are very adaptable, we are capable of taking on a lot, holding a lot, responding even in love to those who express or act upon their anger towards us. Sometimes our humanity calls upon us to do just that. But we have our limits. If the very fabric of our reality, if the spaces in which we inhabit this world, in an abstract sense, are dominated by the anger or disapproval of another, that is not space we can easily inhabit. We will need to seek after self-care, to find those moments in our lives of gentleness, to plumb the depths of the self, to bring peace into our minds, and feed our souls.  Otherwise we will burn up and get worn out. We must seek after that which affirms our humanity, that which is humanizing. In the same way then that the anger of another person might be a dehumanizing force for us, and blacken our world, and even belittle our souls, so too can even our worldviews, our vantage upon this world, our ideas about the world, act in this way! A by-product of our worldview could be that we are alienated from an interior sense of the sacred, or the good. A by-product of our worldview could be that in some sense we are brutalized from the Self. Excessive cynicism might be an example of this. If we’re so jaded that we are unable to see any good, in any apparent acts of selfless love, say, then our worldview really has landed us in a pretty dark place. Again, not a space we as human beings can easily inhabit. Not a place good for our souls. Perhaps, in such cases, our worldview requires some scrutiny, and re-examination?

But sometimes, to complicate things a little further, our worldview that we sense as being dehumanising to us, and our interior sense of the self, in some way is nevertheless also, in as far as our vantage upon the world is concerned, true, or reasonable to us. Or on balance, the truest view of the world we might have. And that is a difficult problem to square. It would be wrong (I believe) to assume that the natural order, if we can call it that, necessarily lines up in such a way that we can always bridge that space between our worldview and humanity’s collective sense of the good being realised. Why would we assume that was the case? They need not equate as comfortably as we would like. Often, we encounter this problem in the space between ‘idealism’ and ‘reality’. Now, the trouble I have here, at this juncture, is not so much with this trade-off per se. If it is correct to assume idealism and reality cannot easily be aligned, then we are inevitably going to find ourselves discerning paths through such troubled in-between space a lot. The problem, rather, is in not acknowledging it as such. To allow your own sense of self-righteousness to cloud your ability to see the reality of this conundrum, and in turn fabricating some get out to avoid confronting, or even acknowledging, the inbuilt paradoxes we face. It is in this lack of acknowledgment that the real shadows lie – that’s the real danger.

For the shadows within our midst, which go on unacknowledged, in turn are projected out on to the other, who is, through no fault of their own, fated to carry upon their shoulders the shadows we have failed to discern and speak into our awareness within our own respective worldviews. The sin then (if we were to call it that), would be hubris – to believe your perspective, or worldview, considered though it is, does not lack for something. It’s for this reason, as I have expressed before, that I take a dim view of ‘principles’, and see them as so destructive. The expressed ‘principle’ in question serves to close down conversation; egg shells are strewn across the path, one is forced to have conversations behind closed doors. I think ‘principles’ are so often conflated with ‘authenticity’ in a person, though really, they’re more like the antithesis of one another. We can all think, I imagine, of worldviews, or ideologies, whose shadows have gone on ignored, and this in turn has caused great damage. I think all ideology, by definition, is probably culpable of this.

Hopefully, all this introduction lays down enough groundwork that I can actually say a little bit directly about Alastair McIntosh & Matt Carmichael’s work. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. The ideology in question with which they’re wrestling, in whatever way you want to express it, is Hyper-Capitalism, or neoliberalism: basically any form of unexamined deference towards market forces to the exclusion of our innate humanity, as we upon this world exist and have our being, not as automatons within a global machine, or as numbers upon a screen, or as bums on seats, or as nodes to be maximised, but rather, as spiritual beings, connected in some way beyond our understanding to all other spiritual beings. As activists then, they’re obviously concerned with enacting change in the world. But unlike a lot of activism we might see, their kind of spiritual activism hopes to ground that action (that activism) within the context of a wholly realised conception of who we as human beings are. Which is to say, as spiritual beings with depths beyond our knowing, deeply interconnected with one another the world over, and as such, all deserving of our naturally afforded dignity, living into the present, the beloved community, not with competition at its core, but with cooperation at its core. All the while, as they seek after this, they endeavour to do so without unduly compromising their own humanity in the process. Seeking after the freedom of the oppressed and the oppressor, because regardless of whatever worldview, someone is advocating they are still, first of all, human beings.

An 'Automaton'.

They would argue then, returning to the point I began this address with, that to inhabit this world, to see this world through a materialistic, hyper-capitalistic vantage, is by its very nature or character dehumanising to us. It distorts a proper, spiritually grounded perspective upon reality and the self. But where this perspective might fall upon that continuum between ‘idealism’ and ‘reality’ - I’ll leave you to be the judge of that. Perhaps we’re called to model idealism, or perhaps we’re called to model that more paradoxical middle way, in an open and transparent way. Some of the theory which underpins this approach to preserve our own humanity and dignity, while at the same time, modelling and pressing earnestly after a new paradigm, or you could say the Kingdom of God on earth, arises from the non-violent resistance movements. Particularly, in as far as such an approach was modelled by Jesus in his resistance of Roman imperialism. Matt Carmichael (At the GA conference) spent a lot of time on this point, particularly focusing on this morning’s Bible reading, the three examples Jesus gives of resisting your enemy: turn the other cheek; if someone asks for your coat, give your shirt also; and go the extra mile. Matt showed how each of these are not actually examples of allowing your enemy to use you as a doormat, but rather resisting your enemy by non-violent means and subverting their worldview, using their worldview against them to thwart their efforts, while maintaining our own dignity in the process. After all, the man who kills the murderer becomes a murderer. I won’t go through all three examples, but I will explain the ‘turn the other cheek’ saying, as that’s the most cited, and also the most misunderstood. It has to do with responding specifically to Roman soldiers and the rules Roman soldiers were governed by from high command, as an occupying force seeking to maintain order in Israel.

Okay, so a Roman soldier. First, everyone in antiquity is right-handed. There are a few isolated cultures which saw left-handedness as special, but for the most part not at all. And in the Roman Empire definitely not; they were stigmatised and forced to conform. Furthermore, in the Roman Empire we’re in a period before toilet paper, and so one used the next best thing – your hand. Specifically, your left hand. So, your left hand was thought of as your unclean hand, your ‘poo’ hand, and therefore remained, at all times, locked by your side. Your right hand, however, was your hand for everything else. Your hand for eating, your hand for greeting your brother, and your hand for inflicting harm. But even how you inflicted harm was not straightforward. A Roman soldier would never slap with the palm for example, because that was considered an effeminate gesture. And a Roman soldier would only punch if they were brawling or sparring with an equal, a fellow soldier perhaps. Which leaves only one option - the back of the hand. Roman occupation was enforced with the back of the hand. But even then there were limits to the force they were legally allowed to inflict upon the oppressed populous. They were trying to maintain order, maintain the status-quo, and prevent revolt. So they were permitted to be firm, but not to inflict permanent damage, because this may very well rile the local population. If a Roman soldier went against this directive, they could face serious disciplinary measures. This is because when they became a Roman soldier they swore a military oath, the breaking of which resulted in corporal punishment, or even possible death.

 Roman soldier. 

Roman soldier. 

So, with all that in mind, what does it mean to turn the other cheek? You’re smacked on the cheek with the back of a soldier’s hand, and you hit the ground, but you feel your dignity has been bruised, your humanity belittled. And so, you take a deep breath, you absorb the hit, and you straighten up, thus allowing the soldier to repeat his move – smacking you again across your right cheek. But instead of doing that, you turn the other cheek, your left cheek. (Turning your face up and away from the solider). The soldier is then unable to hit you on the cheek at all. If he was to strike again, it would hit the face, by turning the other cheek you’re not being meek, it’s the opposite of that, you’re daring the Roman soldier to hit you again to risk for himself a potential flogging or worse. In this act you are affirming boldly your own humanity, and inviting your oppressor to denigrate their own. You’re using the Roman soldier’s worldview against them. You’re turning the tables 360°. One moment that soldier is only concerned with exercising their dominance over you, but the next they’re thinking about themselves and their own role in all this. Their neck is on the line, their reputation maybe, their dignity. And by extension, the very dehumanising nature of their entire enforced ideology, which they were previously blind to, shows up for what it is. That’s the difficulty with ideology – until you’re confronted with its dehumanizing effect, it’s difficult to even see its effects on fellow human beings.

In conclusion, all of this amounts to what’s easily stated, difficult to enact: ‘Know thy self’. To know yourself, to know what you are – a human being, a spiritual being. A human being seeking to grow in our humanity, seeking to open our eyes, and see the paradoxes we’re stuck with. To see our shadows. To carve in this world spaces, mental spaces, and physical spaces, which affirm our humanity and nurture us. Or where that’s not possible, to recognise it as such, and to find that affirming space elsewhere. There need to be springs of life somewhere in this life feeding us. We enact into this very space around us, from here, grounded, we are reaching out - To enact thy community of love.

Amen.