Saturday, August 30, 2008

Who Is Sarah Palin?

Ever since yesterday's announcement my phone here in Alaska has been ringing off the hook: Who is Sarah Palin?

Perhaps the most charitable way to put it is to say that she's an example of Alaska's version of a Valley Girl. Some have used the TT epithet, but let's not go there.

She has no education as that is understood in civilized circles.

She has no culture except that of small-town Alaska, which revolves around petty vengefulness, violent sports and killing things. (See "Life Held Cheap" posted July 28.)

She seems to care nothing for the environment as long as it produces enough animals to kill. "Spiritual" does not appear to be in her vocabulary.

Like W., she appears to act on her guts instead of listening to experts, especially scientists. Pity the poor polar bear, just for starters. And look where Bush's guts, such as they are, have got us.

She's an advocate of Big Oil, as opposed to Little Oil, the Veco services company which has corrupted so many Alaska politicians—corruption everyone has known about for decades but ignored until it all got too embarrassing. This is Alaska, after all.

She will work to reverse Roe vs Wade.

Paris Hilton has more foreign policy experience and subtlety.

In the not-unlikely scenario that she might actually become president (shudder) someone like Putin would snap her up like a chicken thrown to a crocodile.

Her cringe factor exceeds that of Bush.

Gravitas? What's that? She also remarked on a talk show that she hasn't the faintest notion of what the Vice-President does.

The thought of her presiding over the senate makes one rather queasy. As does the thought of her presence at any formal diplomatic function.

Far from restoring our credibility abroad, Palin would make us an even greater laughing stock—if that is possible.

Having recently had a baby she is doubtless suffering from "baby brain", a scientifically proven "normal" deficiency in mental function following childbirth. Maybe that's why she said "yes" to McCain. If not, then she is perhaps even more self-deluded than Bush.

Oh yes. And there are the corruption charges she is facing that will surface just before the election.

McCain has been called "insane" to have chosen her. Which raises the question, why do people think that spending years in a POW camp qualifies someone to be president? From a mental health standpoint it rather disqualifies him, which may go some way to explain McCain's erratic behavior spun as "maverick."

And what will Mrs. Moneybags McCain think of her husband's new dollybird? Whatever one thinks of Palin, his cynical choice is an insult to all women: to him she is little more than an inconvenient but necessary appendage/window dressing. Think Dan Quayle.


Stay tuned for the next debacle in American politics and the downfall of a once-great nation.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Swimming to Nowhere

Yesterday, Wednesday, August 27, 2008, we saw the sun for half a day. It added another finger to the one hand on which we can count sunny days or half-days in the last two months. Global warming brings more rain to some latitudes, and ours—and the UK's—happen to fall within this pattern. So while we're heating up overall, our summers are becoming colder and wetter. A lot of people have wondered aloud how they're going to get through the winter after no sun in the summer. Some have already pulled their SAD lights out of storage.

In spite of the brief appearance of the sun, the general mood has not been helped by the story that also came out yesterday about the futile swim of nine polar bears headed north towards the ice they need for survival but which they cannot possibly reach because it is now four hundred miles away. ( The fact that this number of bears was seen in one transect means that there are probably many more launched on the same hopeless journey. Perhaps their drowned bodies will be found like those of the four in 2004; perhaps they will sink without a trace.

Amid the hoopla of the Democratic National Convention, worries about the hurricane season, squabbling over who owns the Northwest Passage, violence in the Middle East, human rights violations and Olympic deceit in China, this image should haunt us, not only because of the suffering inflicted by humans on a magnificent animal that will swim itself to death seeking ice that should be within reach but is no longer, but also because it is symbolic of the human condition. Forget the canary in the mine; it's the polar bear in the sea. Some months ago I wrote about "The Walrus of the Living God". Surely judgment will come because of drowning polar bears as well.

There is no point in fighting over shipping rights in the Northwest Passage if there are no human beings to benefit from the economic advantages of using it. Even if human beings survive in a barren world, is there lasting joy or satisfaction in the items these ships will transport? Deprivation of nature psychosis is already far too evident. Is it to become the norm?

The polar bear has a role in the human psyche, just as wilderness does in general. We cannot deny our origins, and to lose touch with them is fatal. This same week has seen the trumpeting of news that within a few decades computers will be smarter than we are. In what sense? Machines have no sense of "wild", of the chthonic dynamisms that make us human. Advertising already influences our behavior far more than we are aware. Are we then to become automatons? If so, we are on the high road to tyranny and the conservative dream.

We might think of the receding ice pack as the wisdom and insight that human beings once sought in order to realize what we used to call divinity, and have now forgotten; and the ever enlarging expanse of Arctic Ocean as the political, economic and spiritual sewage in which the world is now floundering. We are reaching the point of no return, just as the retreat of the ice is reaching its tipping point.

I hadn't intended this post to be a political commentary, but as sick as we all are of political news, we need to pay attention. This election is not so much about the personality who will occupy the White House as it is about the Supreme Court appointments that occupant will make. Few people would argue that four more years of W. and the disasters he has brought on us would be less than catastrophic. But that is exactly what we will get if McCain wins. He would appoint at least three more ultra-conservative justices, who would give us not just four more years of short-sighted decisions that destroy our environment and our humanity, but decades of decisions that give increasing power to the few. Our system of checks and balances is broken; it needs to be fixed.

It doesn't matter what you think of Obama or the Democrats. Vote against McCain. It may be too late to save the polar bears, but it may not be too late to save a remnant of basic human values or to restore the checks on the executive envisioned by the US Constitution.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ethics Issuing from Silence III

The ethics of silence is green.

The work of silence tunes us to the natural world in a new way. In Alaska, mere survival requires you to be "empty before the world". It requires living from your core silence. The subtle senses come alive: your skin warns of changes in humidity and barometric pressure; your sense of smell becomes acute to fox, martin, salt, rain, fog, kelp, whale and ten thousand other scents. And your sixth sense wakes up: you may not see, smell or hear the bear on the other side of the berry bushes, but when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up—and they really do prickle—you'd better vamoose if you value your life.

But there is more: the work of silence gives us respect for other forms of life. Its importance ranges far beyond a scientific acknowledgment of need for biodiversity, or the discovery that our perception of other creatures as feathered, furred or finned automatons is the product of our arrogance. The work of silence enables us to engage with the world around us in ways far beyond the present ability of science to measure. This engagement is not a one-way street of observation; it is a true engagement, receiving what the natural world wishes to tell us as well as allowing the natural world to discover who we are.

It used to be the case that the character of young Inuit people came under acute examination when they were taken out onto the sea ice for the first time. Misinterpreting the subtle senses, speaking too quickly (showing off or attracting attention)—any distraction endangers the life of the group. The young must learn composure, another important word for Native peoples, along with "respect". On the other hand, not pointing out a sound an elder may be too deaf to hear is equally imperiling; the young must learn to take risks. On the ice, a mistake is the same as a lie, and a lie is the same as murder. Respect is life: respect for the signals the environment is sending; respect for silence; respect for the wisdom of the elders; respect for one's own acuity.

In popular urban culture the word "respect" is too often linked to an excuse for ghetto violence. On the other hand, its absence from ordinary life makes everyday speech ring hollow. I have been told that among Native people the word is related to acknowledging the other's weight of person: their character; their silence, space and judgment and the freedom to use these aspects creatively, or to abuse them. People go to great lengths to preserve this respect; for example, correction is indirect: an elder will quietly say, "Someone is..." and name the fault. Ideally, everyone present will examine him or her self to see if the fault is theirs.

When I heard about this notion it reminded me of the nuance of density that attaches to the Hebrew word for glory, kavod. It is as if there is a hidden glory radiating from each person which will reveal itself only to those who have been able to focus outward and wait in generosity, allowing their own hidden glory—hidden especially from themselves—to pour forth. Each person can realize this glory by relinquishing closely-held shibboleths to listen receptively to the silence, through the silence to the other. Even as the observing I/eye is elided, the glory pours through.

The ethics that issue from the work of silence are counter-cultural. The notion of relating to people with respect by creating a welcoming space where the often surprising truth of the other may unfold is often regarded with contempt by those who take their ethics from a Machiavellian perspective. For them, relating to others without trying to manipulate them is seen as weakness.

It is for this reason that leaders like Rowan William are often under attack from all sides. The ethics that issue from silence are kenotic, that is, they arise from a wellspring of silence that has manifested itself by pouring through those who have made themselves available to it. One reason history has a tendency to repeat itself is that there are so few leaders who understand the discernment of the need to wait to see what unfolds, to be inclusive, to not act. A leader who seeks his or her own self-interest and acts accordingly will inevitably be caught in the feedback loops that eventually generate division, violence, and abuse, while a kenotic leader can often be a catalyst for something entirely new to break in.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ethics Issuing from Silence II

Taking up the issue of injustice, we learn from silence that there are moments when we must cast all caution aside and stake our lives on an issue we regard as critical. A wise friend of mine once said, "You're going to get crucified anyway; you might as well get crucified for something you believe in." In other words, while working for justice as you are able in daily life, realize that something may come along that demands your all. Jesus, after all, drove the money changers out of the temple; he was rude and he was angry, and he got crucified. The Buddhists might say this was "vajra" anger. It arises when what is crucial to humanity is being corrupted.

What I'm trying to say here is very simple: everything that Jesus teaches us about living, including his life and resurrection is to be found in the work of silence, particularly as it is laid out in the kenotic hymn (Phil. 2:5-11). This is why Jesus is both the paradigm and parable of silence.

Equally, however, for those afraid of or damaged by religion, these ethics will in any event make themselves evident in the work of silence. This is one reason I don't use much "religious" or "theological" language in the hope that I might receive a new perspective and understanding of that language, so that, stripped of institutional distortions, it might actually refer to something, i.e., the work of silence.

Without making any generalizations about "liberal" and "conservative", it seems to me that the person who tries to live from silence is aware from within (as opposed to bowing to a rule imposed from without) of the need to be slow to judge and/or condemn. Such a person might leave open many questions that vex our current culture and certainly the Anglican Communion. Silence is inclusive not exclusive. It is significant that starting with the meeting in Ireland in 2005, the members of GAFCON have consistently refused to sit in silence with the rest of the bishops, an exercise that is often fruitful in resolving conflicts.

Being slow to judge doesn't mean, anarchy or "anything goes": for example, no one in their right mind would suggest that pedophiles should not be contained in a way so that children and others will not be hurt.

But it does mean exercising extreme caution, "respect", if you like, for the mystery of creation. We cannot live without exercising our judgment; but silence shows us how very inadequate and provisional those judgments are. Silence may lead us to ask startling questions: Why, for example, especially in an age of social instability, should we bar people of the same sex from having their relationship blessed? Why shouldn't the church provide some sort of commitment blessing for every group of people living together? Blessing doesn't necessarily imply a sexual relationship. We have grandparents raising grandchildren; siblings living together raising other siblings' children; completely unrelated people taking in waifs and strays, street children taking care of one another, and a variety of other combinations. Why not recognize and encourage their efforts with such an outpouring of love?

The respect that issues from silence means, at a personal level, refraining from stereotyping, even when a person comes up to you and says that on the Enneagram she's a 7, or on the Meyers-Briggs she's an INFP. In silence one needs to ask oneself what potentials these stereotyped results tend to lock out? Respect means seeking always to relate to the mystery of the other, what is unknowable, to provide a welcoming and open silence for that person's unfolding truth to be revealed, a process that never ends. In ancient literature this is called "reading of hearts", the meeting and self-revelation of two silences. And it means doing the same with our selves. Perhaps this is what loving our neighbor as our selves means.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ethics Issuing from Silence I

To do the work of silence, simply to become silent—not merely refraining from noise—and to live through the gifts silence gives us—requires us to live the gospel's instructions. Or, to put it the other way round, if we do the work of silence we will discover the gospel instructions for ourselves (it is this the institutional church has failed to teach us). If we don't follow these injunctions, we either won't enter silence in the first place, or we will find it unbearable when we do.

We must give up judgment, anger, avarice, whether for things, ideas, or people; we must be ruthlessly honest—in the event, the silence will strip us of our lies if we aren't. We must let our lives play out before the eye of the heart, seeing other points of view, changing our own "take" on a matter so that we can "give"—forgive; letting go. Or if we can't, trusting that in the silence our hearts will be changed so that we may have compassion and detachment and allow God's forgiveness (for in a sense we can never forgive; only God can) to flow through us.

[When we read ancient and medieval texts about pride, we're looking primarily at the notion of hanging onto and insisting on your own ideas, and only secondarily at what today we would think of as pride in its more limited and trivial sense.]

In other words, when we go into silence (and I'm thinking of meditation here as the easiest example to work with) all the compass points by which we normally navigate are suspended. Contradictions, paradoxes, life events we think of as "good" and "evil" all live equally and together in the silence. Nothing is wasted. With the changed perspective that silence gives, our discernments, our judgments and all the rest become far more provisional. We may see, for example, that what we once counted evil may be no less so in itself, but that somehow it has been woven into the fabric of redemption. We learn to live with ambiguity.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Being vs Doing

There seems to be a range of opinions about the effectiveness of Lambeth conference.

Some of the Gafcon people are still trumpeting in self-imposed outer darkness, although some decided to attend. Two English bishops have called for an orderly split of the Communion.

Other bishops, wanting results at any price, have said it was a complete waste of time. Still others seem frustrated and unsure. No one got what they wanted, which is very good news indeed.

One of the so-called blogging bishops, however, seems to have twigged to what was really going on. In his first post (unfortunately no longer available) he spoke of silence together during the opening retreat, and how much more of that bishops needed, both individually and collectively.

This was a Lambeth conference that called bishops back to a Christianity rooted in silence, which is where all religion begins, and to which it must continually refer if it is not to be twisted into a deadly force. It was a Lambeth about being, not about doing; about building relationships, not about manipulation.

It was designed to offer the bishops an opportunity to reflect and engage apart from power politics and the sort of debate that ensures no one will listen.

The fact that the Anglican Communion is in such a mess testifies to the distance it has fallen from silence, and its mistaken commitment to an authoritarian model that negates the message of the person, Jesus, it purports to preach.

Kenosis, or self-emptying (better: being poured out through), is at the heart of the Christian message: God's, Jesus', ours. But this message is now so alien even to bishops that few recognize that Rowan Williams, beyond the strictures attaching to his office, is a living example of kenotic leadership.

If the bishops and their flocks had not so completely lost the plot they would have recognized a long time ago what Williams is modeling. But few did. A space was created for them to recognize and practice kenosis, but it would seem that few knew how to use the silence and many were made uncomfortable by a neutral space.

If the institution is to survive as a viable entity in the coming years it is going to have to do some highly revisionist re-education from the top down. At the same time, given the number of clashing crosiers it is also apparent that there are a lot of bishops who are not receptive to Williams, to other bishops, to tolerance, perhaps even to the god they have imprisoned in the stone of law and noise.