Fox Creek February 2020

Beatitudes, Healing, Soft Power

(It may help to read the previous post, The Joy of Weak Power.)

Yesterday I went to see The Railway Man. The inhumanity of the Thai-Burma railway was not a story I was meeting for the first time. Indeed the movie was understated in its portrayal of the violence done to people. "We never tell the whole story because no one would believe us," says one of the characters. Yet even with the little violence shown, I could feel my anger and outrage flaring. I was being invited by something, if not the movie, to hate. To hate with great rage.

The great healing between Eric Lomax, the British soldier, and Nagase, the Kempetai, or Japanese Secret Service, translator was voiced near the end of the movie: "Some time you have to stop hating." It was through this that both men regained their lives and their humanity.

Soft power stops hating. It forgives. Hannah Arendt says what forgiveness does is release us from the past, from the chain of retaliation, and it makes the future possible.

It is through powerlessness that we enter into solidarity with our fellow human beings, form a community with the weak, and thus reveal the healing, guiding, and sustaining mercy of God… As followers of Christ, we are sent into the world naked, vulnerable, and weak, and thus we can reach our fellow human beings in their pain and agony and reveal to them the power of God's love and empower them with the power of God's spirit. Henri Nouwen

So what heals you, Andrew? This is a key question for me. I regard hard power as a misuse of who we are, of who I am, and a failure in my discipleship. Hard power and I are a dangerous combination.

What converts my great personal power into soft godly power? How do I become weak? How do I get beyond a word game about power, and yet not be defeated person who is destroyed by the weakness? Weakness does mean to suffer, it does have a cost, but I sense there are those who, even in defeat, still have a certain dignity.

There are 1reports that people sang in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. One can scarcely dare to appropriate lessons from such suffering for fear of trivialising and mocking it. But there is a dignity here, a humanity and nobility in the face of utter defeat, that I cannot escape. It is not that those who wept, or begged ,or collapsed, were in any way less—  who knows if I could sing!—  but that in the most evil of places, and in the most utter loss of power there is a glimpse of something else; a resurrection perhaps.

How do I get to a 'place of singing,' of healing? I have no tidy answer. I do not think there is any formula for this, but the strands of my life seem to coalesce like this:

We all have a driving theological question, an "obsessio," that bugs us. "[A]n obsessio is that which so gets its teeth into a person that it establishes one’s life as plot." Mine is: How does anything make sense? Where is meaning and purpose?" All my theological work seeks to address that question at some level.

In a similar manner, I suspect, there is a driving psychological force or obsession within each of us. Terror at our mortality, despair, anger... What distorts my humanity, and keeps me from it, is rage. I see its genesis in some early memories.

As a very young child, four years old, or less, I played hide and seek with my parents, and rounded the corner of the house to discover them embracing without me. Suddenly I realised I was separate, alone, and felt a great pang of grief. I think ever since then there has been a kind of anger within me about this loss and separation.

And then, at school, there was the bullying. I cannot bring myself to write about what they said to me, although the triviality and childishness of the words is laughable, because 55 years later, it hurts too much.

I find that my rage and anger at life and its injustice begins in these places. The ink of a bully's target is indelible. I never fitted in again. Life began to improve in senior high school with a teacher who was a friend more than a teacher, but I was never at home. I left for the University with a kind of joy, and never really came back.

It was too late, of course. The habit of defensiveness and borderline paranoia was set in the muscles of my mind. I've known for 35 years that I live, as Eric Lomax put it in the movie, as though the war had never ended. But I could not let go of it.

Hints of healing began years ago. I hated the three girls who turned my life from innocence to misery. Two of them were sisters.

In the strange life of a pastor, a colleague once "said nothing, but said everything" about one of them in a pastoral conversation. He did not know I knew her from childhood. And childhood observations around town, made in innocence, added up to new insights as I began to meet the mess of life. I began to realise the sisters themselves were living a life of some horror. I know little detail.

For a long time I have felt sorry for them. As I flailed around seeking my own healing, I would often think of these sisters, wondering how they were getting on in life. I did not know why, but I was beginning to let go of my hatred for them, even if I could not let go of my pain and rage in other areas. I think I was learning compassion.

Always in my memories, but oddly passed over, is a moment of walking with a friend, arms across shoulders, down the side of the primary school. It was a blessed moment of innocent joy and companionship; life as it should be for a child; life full of wonder. I included the words of a little friend in my First Impressions this week…

Talking with [my son] today about Australia Day and he asked why so many people want to come to Australia. I said because it's a lot safer here than in many other countries. "Yeah", he says "but have they heard of our wildlife? We have the world's deadliest snakes and spiders. And sharks. And crocodiles. It's dangerous here!". Too cute to fill him in on the terrors of the world out there... (Sarah)

As I remarked to my ministry supervisor, he will learn the terrors of the world soon enough. But in a blessed childhood we learn the terrors slowly and with a measure of safety. And not too soon.

Days after Gary and I walking together, the bullying started and my innocence was lost. I think after my first tears, I began to hate, and it grew into a deep sullen rage; who knows what would have happened if I had burst out in violent kicking and scratching— these were big girls— perhaps it would have been better. But my rage, and my determination not to be defeated, my determination to be better and superior, helped build the very walls that isolated me and kept the rage in where it ate at me from the inside. Those walls still too often restrict the free flow of my life today.

But somewhere, I have begun to mourn for that little boy in Grade 1. The poor little bugger. The poor, poor kid. No one knew what was happening to his heart. I could weep for him, only I am a little afraid of what would happen if I do.

This is not self pity. I am not feeling sorry for myself in that way which can breed more anger. It is a deep compassion for someone who is not me— for that little boy. I think on the day that I finally cry for me, it will be mostly free of the anger.

This experience relates profoundly to the Beatitudes which have been this week's lectionary reading. (Matthew 5:1-12)

They are about blessing which I understand to be something far beyond, and quite independent of happiness. A blessed person has entered— been given, really— a particular relationship with reality and with God. Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are you when they persecute you... they are paradoxical sayings, and kōan like. To be blessed is to have the kōan break open our logic, and to see the reality of the universe— and to begin to enter into it. It is to see the fundamental reality of weak power, the power of Jesus' cross.

The  Beatitudes are promise: blessed are those who…… for they will be…… The Beatitudes begin with sheer grace. They begin with two sayings, two universals of the human condition, and with promise: Blessed those who are poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted. No conditions are present in these Ten Commandments from the new and greater Moses of Matthew. They are sheer promise.

To mourn is the essence of our humanity. If we could not mourn there would be something deeply wrong with us. Mourning shows our ability to understand that what should be, what could be, has failed. Mourning is more profound than vision for the future. Mourning is perhaps even more basic to our humanity than self-awareness. Self-awareness is always compromised; we are skilful at our self-deceptions and denial. But mourning is sheer unadulterated grief at the failure of what should and could be. It is the bleeding out of our hope. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

It is when I began to mourn that I began to heal. It was gift. I cannot fathom what began the process of letting go of the rage— rage that was righteous. We see the gift in the movie of Lomax's life; the chance discovery of a newspaper article which alerted him to Nagase's survival; his amazing wife Patti; their fortuitous meeting on a train.

But mourning will not hurry. It is not neat. The Railway Man is a movie which compresses real life; as if I stripped this rambling article down to an A4 page. Life rambles. In real life, Lomax and Nagase corresponded for some time before meeting. "It's not an immediate letting going tension… It is not like piece of elastic breaking all of a sudden when it's overstretched… It just slackened off over time," said Patti Lomax about the healing of her husband's hatred.

But finally, in the mourning, I have been comforted.

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Those who are low in life force," someone called it in our weekly Bible study; the crushed and wounded; the weak.

The poor in spirit have few resources of their own in life. Unlike the 'strong in spirit' they cannot survive on their own, wielding rage, or hard power, or riches.

When we are poor in spirit, and when we begin to mourn, we can see the reality of life; its gift and its horror. We can own up to our basic human frailty and vulnerability, and see that no one has real strong power that endures; 'all things are fleeting,' says Ecclesiastes.

We are able to enter that inheritance of all people which is called the kingdom of God, because our idols are stripped from us when we mourn and when we are poor in spirit.

[This in no way justifies the rich in some perverse logic that might say they help the poor. Nor does it glorify poverty. Poverty and depression first of all cause fear and rage, not mourning. The rich insulate themselves from God; that is, most of us insulate ourselves, and constantly inoculate the poor against grace by holding high the worldly benefits of their wealth and seeding envy, fear, and rage.]

So was all this healing for me simply the result of the good or bad luck at the universe? Did I simply stumble upon the story of the girl who bullied me, and the theology of weak power? In another life, might my rage have driven me to crime, or suicide?

There is a frightening amount of serendipity to life. Only a theology of universal salvation which is all gift— all grace— and no reward whatsoever, can ameliorate the unfairness of probability. Blessedness is "extra grace" or "grace plus," for the love of God will reject no one.

My experience is this: Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. Meek is not weakness, or some snivelling acquiescence. Meek is strong, determined adherence to the ways of God; a hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Being meek puts us in the right place, the right frame of mind; it focuses our attention on what matters in our experience of reality so that we may capitalise on serendipity when it presents itself.

Meekness lets us recognise grace. It puts us in the path of conversion. It opens our eyes to the potential of what the probabilities have thrust before us. It allows us to inherit the earth. We slowly become those gifted to see "the deep magic," as Aslan might put it; the weak but total claims of compassion and forgiveness which will bring the world to fulfilment. Meekness slowly opens our future, because we not only begin to see the kingdom of heaven, we begin to experience the reality of the kingdom of heaven.

Meekness means then, that hungering and thirsting after righteousness becomes our natural state, the habitual way we live; it becomes our appetite for life. We become merciful as a consequence. Our hearts are cleansed; our motives are purified, focused, godly. Peace— peace before personal prosperity and security— becomes our priority. Peace is no longer an academic concept or ideal, it is the reality of heaven on earth, the siren song that lures us, the natural direction of life whose loss and lack we mourn. We become peacemakers by nature. And so we become children of God.

 My supervisor said of a monk, "It was like standing next to Jesus." I call this the "Dalai Lama effect." Real children of God, as opposed to the doctrinaire kind who place faith in their doctrine, attract people. They are given the gift of holiness, a different way of being because they are blessed, focused on the reality of God and all that is.

Yet as we "dodge between the powers" some will resent us and the challenge we bring to their petty empires. Blessed are the persecuted. In blunt terms— with all the caveats about being a jerk— persecution is the sign we are children of God and that ours is the kingdom of heaven.

In extremity we might use hard power and lock-up the Ivan Milats of the world. It is the best we can do; there is a season… But our non-violence, our soft reply, does heap coals upon the head of the abuser. (Ro 12:20, Proverbs 25:22) It refuses to legitimise their power. Our forgiveness, limited as it must be when they do not repent, keeps our future open, Arendt said; it releases us, it breaks the chain of retaliation and makes the future possible.

It offers serendipity to the oppressor! Herod was offended and angered by John's criticism, but he "liked to listen to him." (Mark 6:20) And finally, did not. Serindipity lost. Yet as Bono sings, grace finds goodness in everything; grace makes beauty out of ugly things. And so we are blessed.

  1. "Suddenly a voice began to sing. Others joined in, and the sound swelled into a mighty choir. They sang firs the Czechoslovak national anthem and then the Hebrew song 'Hatikvah'. And all this time the SS men never stopped their brutal beatings. It was as if they regarded the singing as a last kind of protest which they were determined to stifle if they could.  To be allowed to die together was the only comfort left to these people. Singing their national anthem they were saying a last farewell to their brief but flourishing past, a past which had enabled them to live for twenty years in a democratic state, a respected minority enjoying equal rights. And when they sang 'Hatikvah', now the national anthem of the state of Israel, they were glancing into the future, but it was a future which they would not be allowed to see."


Andrew Prior

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