Monday, December 08, 2008

olmert calls it like it is (this time)

Today the BBC reported that Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, whose appointment ends soon, called the attacks by Jewish settlers in Hebron in the last several days a "pogrom," a word generally used to refer to the anti-Semitic treatment of Jews in Europe in and before World War II. Settlers are angry because the Israeli army forcibly evicted a few of them a couple days ago because they forged documents of ownership of the house, and the Israeli High Court ruled against them.

It is true that this act is a "pogrom," but it is incredibly hypocritical for Olmert to denounce it without taking measures against settlement growth. It is Olmert's policies which have broken the Oslo Accords and continued building settlements in the West Bank. If he gives them the prerogative to live there, stealing land from the Palestinians who previously lived in those houses and used that land, how is this different from the violent attacks occurring in Hebron in recent days?

The only difference is that the attacks are overtly violent, while the subtle stealing and take-over of the West Bank happen stealthily. What is really wrong with the attacks, as Olmert's thinking goes, is that they are bringing the world's attention to the problem and swaying public opinion toward innocent Palestinians, while the settlement growth is almost imperceptible and not worthy of much press.

This latest violence is nothing very unusual, unfortunately. Look at this UN report, which records almost as many settler attacks in the first half of 2008 as there were in all of 2007.

I hope that eventually--hopefully sometime soon--all people will be able to live in peace in the Middle East, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion or gender. May we all recognize the seeds of war in ourselves, and live in more just ways with one another day by day.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

catching the bus

Last semester my finals week metaphor was the bike ride to campus--but this time of year it is WAY too cold here to bike. So I ride the shuttle bus that takes us from the student apartments to campus and back. This is great, except one has to actually catch the bus in order to use it, and in the late afternoon and evening the bus only comes once and hour, so if you miss it you're out of luck (or one's husband has to come pick one up and isn't very happy about this because he has to wake up one's child from a nap...or wait an extra hour for one to come home! Not that this has ever happened to anyone WE know...).

Anyway, so my metaphor for this finals week is "catching the bus."

The last couple days I've found myself realizing just a little too late that it's almost time for the shuttle, and I'm 5-6 blocks away and still have to pack up my stuff. So I pack up and rush to the shuttle, wearing shoes that are fairly comfortable except when I'm walking fast and they rub against my heels, and about a block and a half away I say to myself, "Cherice, you're going to make it. Just keep on goin fast, it's worth the blisters on your heels!"

I'm not really sure if it IS worth the blisters on my heels, least in its metaphorical sense it probably is worth the blisters on the heels of life that this week causes.

As far as finals weeks go this one isn't completely bad, it's just that I have to write a paper that I hope to use for grad school applications so that makes it seem even more daunting. I just have to keep telling myself, "You're almost there!" I may lose some sleep, I may stress a bit, I may not have as much time with my family as I'd like--but it's worth those blisters, right? They'll go away soon.

Or maybe I should try paying a little more attention and not waiting until the last minute. Yeah, I said that last semester, too. I don't think it's possible. I've been working on this all semester! (And watching TV and movies and hanging out with friends and reading a few novels...but one can't work ALL the time, right?!)

Anyway, here's hoping I catch the bus. Only a week and two days to go!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"good" & "evil": cultural construction or existential reality?

Here's an excerpt from the paper I'm working on--it's still a rough draft but it's what I'm thinking about. The current title of a paper is "Self-Transcendent Societies: Ideal Societies & Non-traditional Sources of Power, a case study of Gandhi's movement and implications for the Christian church."

Emile Durkheim states: “there are no false religions....all respond, if in different ways, to the given conditions of human existence” (Durkheim 4). Human beings create religions to address felt needs, because, as Thomas Hobbes puts it, apart from society, “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes, Leviathan). Each individual's conception of “good” and “evil,” say Hobbes and Durkheim, really is generated out of our understanding of what is good for the self, rather than through objective truths (Hobbes; Durkheim 15-17). Apart from civil society individuals are in a state of perpetual war, each person against all others: each of us does what is best for ourselves in the moment and there is no authority who can state what is best for all (Hobbes). This is why, they posit, we form societies: to act as that overarching authority mediating between various individuals' conceptions of what is “good.”

Human cultures almost universally conceive of life on two levels of existence: present reality as opposed to the dreamed-of ideal, or a physical versus a spiritual world. Durkheim suggests that these correspond, in human thought, to the individual and collective ability to discern what is “good" (Durkheim 18). We ascribe to the spiritual level our ideals and also the authority to enforce our ideals, which are carried out in the world through our society (including governing authorities), and perhaps somewhat separately on a spiritual level by gods or spiritual forces. Durkheim says these two levels are actually “an individual being...and a social being that represents within us the higher reality of the intellectual and moral order that we know through observation—by which I mean society” (Durkheim 18). We need this duality because it keeps us from either acting in a perfectly utilitarian manner with no thought for ourselves, or a completely selfish manner, because we are conscious of the collective need of humanity to live together, requiring some form of moral responsibility to one another.

In short, “truth,” “good,” “evil,” and all moral terms are social constructs that really mean “what is good for me/us.” As we extend alliances out further and further the pool of individuals included in our qualification of what is “good” increases. And yet, we form these societies in order to first ensure that our own needs are met, because others then have a moral responsibility to do what is “good” for ourselves (Hobbes).

Durkheim's theory is difficult to refute because one can neither prove nor disprove the existence of a god or force that defines “goodness,” “truth,” and in contrast, “evil.” Perhaps all we can say for certain is that the best way to envision “truth” and “the good” is as ethical action that ensures life for all people and the natural world, where no individual must worry about meeting their basic physical, emotional and spiritual needs. “Evil,” then, is unnecessary or pointless death. All things must die—this is part of life. But fearing death to the point that one places one's own needs or the needs of one's society (be it a family, clan, nation, race, or what have you) above the life of others has the effect of creating “evil” for another individual or group, and therefore is evil. Although I disagree with Durkheim that society is the source of all understanding of good and evil, perhaps we can agree that it is within society (in which I include the natural world) that good and evil find meaning. Apart from expression in reality, all things are “morally indifferent.” It is only when an action occurs in a specific context, using specific methods, that it it can be discerned whether it is “good” or “evil” (Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II.1.3).

Even though I can make this compromise with Durkheim, my intuition tells me that perhaps there is something toward which all our visionary ideals point (We will not here discuss from whence “intuition” comes, although this is a worthy (and related), but will assume readers have a knowledge of this internal, inexplicable certainty.) Perhaps Plato is right about his Forms, and Tillich is right about his Ground of All Being, and Levinas is right about our responsibility to God in the face of the Other, and people of faith in all times and places are right in their yearning for something looking like what Christians call the Kingdom of God. Could it be that all these idealistic desires point to an essential Reality, a spiritual plane of self-transcendence where truth, justice and love coexist in interdependence and joy? This may not be a place per se, whether present, past or future, in this or another world. Perhaps this is a state of being, a living-in-relation to one another and to the Ultimate. Perhaps it is this state of being in which the individuals mentioned in the introduction lived, an interior knowledge of the Ultimate that orients their exterior lives toward existence in the ideal society here and now.

In my own life I have a deep sense of the reality of this Ultimate. It is an impression of Truth in the pit of my stomach, at the very core of who I am and the way I view the world. As I understand my Christian tradition, God is a God who is overwhelmingly for creation—not in the sense that God's purpose is to serve creation, but that God is on the side of creation, wants what is best for those individuals and things God created. In this sense, ultimate truth and good, then, are synonymous with what is best for individuals and the world. God is a Being with whom we can relate, and our relationship with this Ultimate has everything to do with our relations with one another. This is why societies are so important: they provide us a framework in which to relate to one another, a space in which we can all live as whole persons, attending to the truth and reminding one another of our responsibilities to each other through being grounded in Essential reality.

I believe we need one another not only for our basic needs of food and shelter, but because we remind one another of what it means to be human. We confront one another with the spiritual truths of trust, humility and love, as well as our own selfishness and fears. In an ideal society we would continually be humbled and lifted up by our interactions with one another and the Ultimate: humbled as we realize how much work we have yet to do, and lifted up by the fact that we are given the opportunity daily and moment-to-moment to act in truthful ways, and we can choose to do so.

This is not a rejection of the physical world in favor of a spiritual existence, divorced from the body. Instead it is a life of intention where we seek through our lived relationships to enact truth and love. We connect with others and the Ultimate “face to face,” as Levinas suggested, or spirit to spirit—not only in theory but also in reality. This spirit connection reminds us of our responsibility for the Other, which can only be lived out in physical reality. This is not the Utilitarian ideal of the most good for the most people, but it is doing that which provides the most good for the individual standing before me, and the individuals around the world in the network of influence woven between us. It is this spiritual connection with the Other that provides our lives with meaning and encourages us to seek preservation of all life.