News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: The Cages of Birds in a Fat House

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Cages of Birds in a Fat House

Like cages full of birds,
their houses are full of deceit;
they have become rich and powerful
and have grown fat and sleek.

Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not plead the case of the fatherless to win it,
they do not defend the rights of the poor.

Should I not punish them for this?”
declares the Lord.
“Should I not avenge myself
on such a nation as this?

“A horrible and shocking thing
has happened in the land:

The prophets prophesy lies,
the priests rule by their own authority,
and my people love it this way.
But what will you do in the end?
--- Jer. 5:25-31

In a recent poll, 90 percent of Iraqis expressed growing despair in what's become a civil war in their country. Their psychological distress no doubt reflects what some have described as hell. (Also, see this essay on "The Creation of Hell.")

What is even more apparent, though, is that the US public has little comprehension of the daily terror and uncertainty of this life in Iraq. Perhaps many think of Iraq's civil war along the lines of America's own ghettos where gangs fight over turf and where innocents are killed.

I have argued in the past that many Americans willingly suppress their awareness of these realities. Perhaps it is out of apathy, busyness, or even a malicious disregard for the suffering of those we consider the enemy.

I would argue, though, that all of these excuses are manifestations of a form of despair that is spiritual and ethical in nature and that represents an evil so great that it creates the conditions for greater evils.

Talk of what led up to the war rarely broaches issues that you can characterize as spiritual. Even those religious commentators who don't simply spout the rhetoric of Xtendom facing down the enemies of civilization and Christian culture usually frame their discussion in political terms that reflect a liberal vocabulary that seems empty to me, if simply because that vocabulary is spiritually vacant.

The spiritual malaise that led to this war originates in fear and the reaction that people exhibited at the 911 attack exhibited little public virtue, as the Machiavellians might put it. Instead of facing such atrocity with any semblance of courage, the country's leaders responded as so many bullies whose worst fear had come to light: their own feelings of inadequacy and weakness.

Nor did they exhibit anything that you might call religious courage. To speak of a religious courage opposed to an ethical courage may appear odd, yet it is easy enough to cite examples of this kind of courage. The early Christian church martyrs exhibited just such courage. In the face of immense oppression and persecution, not to mention torture, these martyrs faced the possibility of extinction with joy and hope. They did not react in violence, nor did they band together to wreak vengeance.

As much as Americans hate to think that there's any meaning to corporate sinfulness—relying instead on some corrupt image of the monadic individual--this war and its aftermath must bring to consciousness exactly that realization of sin perpetrated by a horde. After all, the majority of people in the US backed this war until it started going bad. Many voted for the man who perpetrated the fiasco.

Until Americans begin to plumb the depths of their spirits and acknowledge their complicity in this monumental crime against the Iraqi people, they will never solve the problem of terror.

In all the religious rhetoric that the Xtian preachers spout--even those from the Left--few invoke the words and message of the Hebrew prophets. This is shameful. For those prophets like Jeremiah inveighing against imperial pretensions and injustice made in the name of a nation state point not simply to the leaders but also the corrupt and spiritual blindness of an entire nation.

These words might seems to echo the more fanatical cries of the Jihadis. I can only say that Americans must stand up to the hate-filled and unjust violence purveyed by these fanatics. But to do so, they must take the road of faith and repentance, with an open heart disciplined by failure and the experience of imperial folly. But not only must they hear the fanatics in the street outside but they must also hear the voices of those they invite into their own homes.

Americans must begin to see their world as larger than the environs of US borders. They must begin to see themselves as world citizens where the actions that they perform in their food market or gas station can potentially affect the lives of others. Americans must reject their narcissistic egotism that sees the world in their own image and begin to see that others are different and believe differently.

True justice demands not that we see the world as having the same desires, needs, and dreams as we do. It demands seeing ourselves in the nothingness that is common to us all in our most painful and powerless moments. It is embracing that nothingness and taking it into our hearts and forming our will around the contours of its freedom and liberating breath.

As the prophet Jeremiah reminds us, any God that’s worth its/his/her salt demands justice. If that justice does not include the less fortunate and those forgotten by us in our busyness, then that simply means that we refuse to listen to the calls for justice.

It is obvious that the leaders of this country—whether left, right, or center—borrow an old grammar and vocabulary whose story will result in instituting the machinery of injustice. For the new world that is taking shape through war and struggle, the old stories do not work any longer. They are fairy tales that the nation-state nanny tells its cowed and fearful children to keep away the terrors of night.

But the terror is real; the boogeyman does have teeth and does eat children. Like so many stories of family and personal tragedy show, often the perpetrator is someone known, a relative and no stranger. The beast sits in the heart of the very fathers and brothers and mothers who are meant to protect us but whose hearts have been warped by temptation and corruption to betray and terrorize their own.

Indeed, the prophet is right. The prophets lie, the priests rule in their own name and we do indeed love it.

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