Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Complicity and Change

In our judgments of others - or even of the societies in which we live - it is all too easy to relegate the call to humility to a conjured up reminder of our own general depravity or some unrelated secret sins of our own. But what if it is precisely in our judgments of right and wrong that we are to think about and confess our part in that evil to which we point? Perhaps in certain cases we may have no part at all, but I wonder just how often we could put a finger on our complicity in the evils and the enmity of the world, even in our attempt to critique it and call for change. What is complicity?
It is our part, our responsible co-operation, in world history.

But if we are guilty of withdrawal, i.e., from our fellow-men, in this history, what are we in our time? What is the meaning of our life? Why have we been given time to live and work? How shall we stand before God and in His judgment? Will this not be brought against us? Will we not be accused? You were no help to me in my history which was interwoven with yours. You ignored me. I was of no interest to you. You disappointed me when I waited for you. You had no time for me. You merely played with me.

Or again, you only appeared to help, but in reality harmed me. You led me astray, so that it was only with the greatest difficulty, if at all, that I was able to get back to the right path. You confirmed me in that from which you ought to have kept me. And you kept me from that in which I needed confirmation.

Or again, you would not yield to me. In your great righteousness, or simply because you were the stronger, you pushed me to the wall. You humiliated and wounded me. You trampled over me contemptuously and perhaps even derisively, pursuing your own ends. For some reason which I cannot understand you blocked my path. You surrendered and betrayed me. You took from me the dearest that I had. The encounter with you cost me my life.

Yes, we shall certainly have to render our accounts in relation to others, and we must see to it that they are in good order. But who of us will have any real advantage over the rest? Will we not all have our own burden of accusation? And what will be the net result for us all if the only upshot is an awful conflict of mutual recriminations?

(Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation 2, 444-445)
All evildoers and reprehensible actions may not be equal, but neither are any of us innocent, or even wholly lacking in complicity with the evils around. Much focus is put in Christian thinking on the depravity of humanity and the inheritance of the original sin, but leaving it in this mysterious ambiguity we perhaps resist putting any thought into our ongoing embeddedness in the evil structures and systems and contagions of our time and history.

Today's über-concern with ecology has perhaps driven home this point. We all realize that our carbon footprint, our patterns of consumption and waste, and our participation in the economy of the globally advantaged is a small contribution to the degredation of the earth and the unjust dispersal of its resources. Though each of us as individuals may not be able to stem the tide, we recognize that by our actions we either take part in this degredation or we contribute (however minutely) to reform. Many of us stand paralyzed at the question of what we can do, but we also sense that we are nothing but implicated if we do not make a start somewhere.

We know the concept of complicity when it comes to the environment, now what about if we recognize it in other areas as well? This complicity does not render us unable to make judgments about what is right or wrong in this world, but it does remind us to come under that spotlight ourselves, to not make those judgments in self-righteousness, and to take to heart our own calls for reform in the concrete context of our own capabilites.

Rick Mirer may be the worst NFL quarterback ever, but every Monday morning quarterback who ever mocked him would stand to learn much about playing football with him as their tutor.

When Jesus reminds us of the planks in our eyes, is he thinking of our abstract "sinfulness" or of the complicities we'd find if we paid attention? Is not the truest prophetic word the one that comes in confession? Does it not ring hollow if we pray for peace on earth without getting up in mercy and beginning to love our neighbour?

8 comments:

jonkramer said...

Yeah. I think about this stuff quite a bit.
But the thing that bugs me is that when I do, I'm almost always left with a yoke that's difficult and a burden that's heavy. How do you engage the grander scheme of things in a hopeful manner?

For sure, there's some things that are straightforward and simple, but in many of these big global issues, I'm way too stupid and un/mis-informed to critique and call for change. For all I know, where I'm putting my time and money could be accomplishing the exact opposite of what I'm hoping for.
A few examples that come to mind:
1) All the protesting against cheap overseas labour in the past decades. It seems like a Christian thing to be against it, but according to economists (can't remember if it was "The Rebel Sell" or "The End of Poverty) it's actually a key building block for sustainable change and stability.
2) Buying expensive organic this and that - which, most of the time, is actually a marketing gimmick rather than a change agent.
3) Buying cheap stuff in order to be good stewards of our $ - but by doing so we support corrupt corporations who use our money to exploit people around the world.

I guess I could spend a lot more time getting informed on all these societal sins - but in the end that's also time I'm not spending engaging the good I know I ought to do right in my neighbourhood. So it kind of leave me "paralyzed", as you say.

So, how do you engage the grander scheme of things in a hopeful manner?

jonkramer said...

Yeah. I think about this stuff quite a bit.
But the thing that bugs me is that when I do, I'm almost always left with a yoke that's difficult and a burden that's heavy. How do you engage the grander scheme of things in a hopeful manner?

For sure, there's some things that are straightforward and simple, but in many of these big global issues, I'm way too stupid and un/mis-informed to critique and call for change. For all I know, where I'm putting my time and money could be accomplishing the exact opposite of what I'm hoping for.
A few examples that come to mind:
1) All the protesting against cheap overseas labour in the past decades. It seems like a Christian thing to be against it, but according to economists (can't remember if it was "The Rebel Sell" or "The End of Poverty) it's actually a key building block for sustainable change and stability.
2) Buying expensive organic this and that - which, most of the time, is actually a marketing gimmick rather than a change agent.
3) Buying cheap stuff in order to be good stewards of our $ - but by doing so we support corrupt corporations who use our money to exploit people around the world.

I guess I could spend a lot more time getting informed on all these societal sins - but in the end that's also time I'm not spending engaging the good I know I ought to do right in my neighbourhood. So it kind of leave me "paralyzed", as you say.

So, how do you engage the grander scheme of things in a hopeful manner?

Jon Coutts said...

I share these worries, Jon, as you might guess. I guess what I'm pointing to is that we have to decide whether to let a realization of our complicity (and our future complicity based on the well-intentioned reforms we might make) paralyze us or not. And if not, why not? I wonder if our belief in the grace of God gives us ground to do something rather than nothing. A careful, thoughtful something, but something nonetheless. So in the ecological example, we figure out what seems the best thing to buy, and we do it. We figure out reliable sources of information, and use them. In using them we keep asking after their reliabilty. We join a community that does this with us. We make a thoughtful go of it rather than succumb to paralysis, because Jesus is not dead, but risen from the dead.

jonkramer said...

"Something rather than nothing" - yeah, you're right. Makes me think of the talents parable.
And I guess there's also a lot of comfort to be found in the fact that the one who's entrusted us with what we've got isn't actually "a hard man" as in the parable - nor does he think of us as "servants", but as sons and friends.

Actually came across some comforting words from Calvin (of all people!) as I thought about this yesterday:
"Those bound by the yoke of the law are like servants assigned certain tasks for each day by their masters. These servants think they have accomplished nothing and dare not appear before their masters unless they have fulfilled the exact measure of their tasks. But sons, who are more generously and candidly treated by their fathers, do not hesitate to offer them incomplete and half-done and even defective works, trusting that their obedience and readiness of mind will be accepted by their fathers, even though they have not quite achieved what their fathers intended. Such children ought we to be, firmly trusting that our services will be approved by our most merciful Father, however small, rude, and imperfect these may be."

Jon Coutts said...

Hey Jon, I think you are aware that I had commented here before. Blogger crashed and the last few days of stuff was lost. I didn't erase it or anything.

This makes me think I should back up my blog. Now how would I do that...

Colin Toffelmire said...

This is an excellent post Jon (and very well written too, I should say). In response to Jon K's question I would venture to say that the paralysis he identifies is not just something I think that people feel with regard to ethical/moral choices. I've noticed that this is a problem all over academia, for instance. Sydney Lamb (the American linguist) identified it as the odd burden we feel to be right on the first try all the time. But why on earth would we be right on the first try? It's only the first try, right? Hard questions are hard for a reason, and so there will inevitably be a long, and at times arduous, process of adjustment and refinement as we try to press our way toward some kind of solution to very complex problems. I think the only real problem is found when we don't try because we're afraid we might fail. Reminds me of what Mrs. Landingham says to Jed Bartlett in season 2 of the West Wing... "If you don't want to run because you're afraid you might loose, well then, God Jed, I don't even want to know you."

jonkramer said...

Saw that, Jon. And I also replied to the comment, and Blogger ate that too I think.
I'm pretty sure there's a way to "export" your entire blog to html, though - look into it.

Colin, you're right - I've got those issues creeping up in many areas of my life. In some areas I feel totally free to experiment and try and fail - but it others it just seems like the experimentation is somehow wrong. Like when other people are involved and the stakes are so high. In the end, though, I know in my case, the "odd burden" is just usually the result of me holding on to an inaccurate view of God and myself.
Tried posting this quote from Calvin which explains it well:
"Those bound by the yoke of the law are like servants assigned certain tasks for each day by their masters. These servants think they have accomplished nothing and dare not appear before their masters unless they have fulfilled the exact measure of their tasks. But sons and daughters, who are more generously and candidly treated by their fathers, do not hesitate to offer them incomplete and half-done and even defective works, trusting that their obedience and readiness of mind will be accepted by their fathers, even though they have not quite achieved what their fathers intended. Such children ought we to be, firmly trusting that our services will be approved by our most merciful Father, however small, rude, and imperfect these may be.”

Jon Coutts said...

Thanks for those comments, both of you. There is that Landingham voice in my head, and it has to be true, but there are the stakes, too, as Jon has pointed out. But Calvin's point backs up the Landingham point, and it isn't because "you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't."

I think there is another thing to add to the issue of "getting it right on the first try", too. Say we get it "right" on the seventh try. Is that what we do on the eighth? I think every try, if we think of life as a matter of obedience, is an attempt to obey what the living Lord asks for then and there. I wonder how often we think of it that way. I suppose a lot, since we pray before every board meeting, that sort of thing. But on the other hand I wonder how much we are looking to do the common sense thing, or what worked last time, or what worked for someone else, rather than, perhaps, following through on the prayer.

Just some thoughts.

I definitely think there is a worrisome side to this realization of complicity, and that is the realization that much of the problems we face today are the result of well-intended measures of the past. That's crazy to think about. Then again, was it the well-intended measures, or the legacy thereafter which sought to duplicate them over and over rather than imitate the obedience involved?

More thoughts.

I wonder if this works out better in actual situations than in the abstract when we think about it...