Tag Archives: Thomas Merton

Beyond Words: Poet’s Lament

5 Aug

Poetry at its finest stretches the expressiveness of language beyond its prior limits, not necessarily by its choice of words, but through the magical invocation of feelings embedded deeply within consciousness. Yes even poetry has its own frontiers that if crossed lead to a word-less terrain littered with corpses of atrocity, what Thomas Merton and James Douglass have soulfully identified for us as the realm of ‘the unspeakable,’ and then are brave enough to explore forbidden terrain. When we do not respect the unspeakable by our silence we domesticate the criminality of the horror that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, and give way to the eventual emergence of normalcy as has happened with nuclear weapons detached from the happenings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I came across an utterance by one of my heroes, the Jesuit priest/poet, Daniel Berrigan, while on trial for pouring blood on draft cards during the Vietnam War: “I was in danger of verbalizing my moral impulses out of existence.” These words appear at the start of a haunting poem by another one of my heroes, the recently dead poet, Adrienne Rich; the poem’s title is “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” and I recommend it not only as a stunning poetic achievement but also as a text for meditation.

Such thoughts seem far from the recent controversies on this blog about

the competing justice and victimization claims of Israelis and Palestinians, and the sort of language that seems historically validated for some to discuss such matters of life and death, while being hateful to others. It made me appreciate anew that there are some rivers of divergence that are too wide to cross, and that the attempt, first generates anger and frustration, but eventually brings despair, even sadness. Of course, the blogosphere is a new kind of undefended public space that can be entered by anyone with good will or ill. To appoint myself as a kind of censor, given the capacity to exclude or include comments, was neither

congenial nor tenable as a role, and I have decided to give it up except in relation to hate speech or defamatory material, although even here I acknowledge that some degree of subjectivity will always be present, at least unconsciously.

I am of course aware that the Israel/Palestine conflict is almost impossible to approach in a spirit of moderation, and I realize that many of the hostile comments are directed at my particular understanding and way of presenting the issues. Indeed, my posts have been scrutinized by pro-Israeli zealots so as to find some turn of language or alleged opinion that can be used to discredit me in other settings, especially in relation to my role as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council. Unlike comments that can be excluded, the posts are in the public domain, source material for those who seek to mount a personal attack, and there are no rules of the game to ensure that allegations are at least fair and reasonable. I have tried my best not to be intimidated or hurt by such concerted efforts to harm my reputation and destroy my self-esteem, but have not always succeeded.

As the person who dares to continue to write a blog under such circumstances, I have tried to devise for myself a code of responsible behavior for my own benefit, and to establish an atmosphere of trust and respect. I have selected two main principles as guidelines: (1) sustain integrity, especially whenever the suffering of others is involved, especially if it is unpopular to complain about what is happening, or worse, to mount sharp criticism of the perpetrators; in effect, talk truth to power, acknowledging, as I do, in the process that for Gandhi a dedication to truthfulness should never be separated from a dedication to nonviolence. (2) Admit mistakes, and explain their occurrence as honestly and helpfully as possible. In addition, I would add a couple further principles to this informal code, which like the Japanese game of Go has never put its rules in the form of an authoritative written text: (3) use the blog space to challenge whenever possible the ‘politics of invisibility’ that shields from our awareness structures of suffering, abuse, and exploitation; I attempted to do this, for instance, by calling attention to the extraordinary Palestinian hunger strikes that were almost totally ignored by the mainstream media in North America while giving daily coverage to Chinese human rights activists who were enduring far less. (4) use the blog space from time to time to consider a complementary aspect of the way reality is so often obscured and twisted by media, government, special interests, a pattern I label ‘the politics of deflection,’ that is, diverting attention from the message to the messenger, or condemning the auspices under which allegations were made while ignoring their substance; this is happening all the time, perhaps most damagingly by convincing much of the public for decades that the menace of nuclear weaponry has to do mostly with its proliferation rather than with its possession, deployment, threat, and possible use; more controversially, to obscure the violence of energy geopolitics behind a protective screen of counter-terrorism as in fashioning a rationale for attacking Iraq in 2003.

The work of poetry is poetry, but there are times when poets do produce lines here and there that illuminate the human predicament in unforgettable ways. Of course, the recognition of such an illumination is highly personal, and should never be defended. For me the following lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Fragment of an Elegy had this kind of explosive impact upon my imagination:

Once poets resounded over the battlefield, what voice

can outshout the rattle of this metallic age

that is struggling on toward its careening future?

Although composed almost a hundred years ago, this image of triumphal militarism illuminates current conditions and obliquely addresses our worst fears. We need to be thankful for these poems that make the outer limits of the speakable more accessible, especially in dark times of torment, great risk, and confusion.

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On Human Identity

26 Jun


 

            Early in my blog life I wrote about Jewish identity. It was partly an exercise in self-discovery, and partly a response to those who alleged that I was a self-hating Jew, or worse, an anti-Semite. These attacks on my characterwere hurtful even as I felt their distance from my actual beliefs and worldview. In my mind and heart criticisms of Israel and support for the Palestinian struggle for their rights under international law and in accord with fundamental ideas of justice had to do with taking suffering seriously,which for me is the most solid foundation of human identity.

            It is my conviction that in a globalized world human identity should serve as the moral trump card in relation to conflict situations. Of course, the optic of human identity can produce a variety of interpretations of a particular situation, and is not meant to eclipse other experienced identities. The Holocaust was a most horrifying instance of what the great Catholic monk, mystic, and writer, Thomas Merton, called the unspeakable. The memories of victimization can never function as a moral excuse for the victimization of another. Tragically, the unfolding of Israel’s quest for security and prosperity beneath the banner of Zionism has generated a narrative of severe Palestinian suffering taking multiple forms, ranging from the prolonged and acute vulnerability of statelessness and rightslessness to the humiliations of living decade after decade under harsh military rule in an increasingly apartheid setting.

 

            But our wider concern beyond the specifics of any given situation should also encompass the future of humanity. So long as ethnic, religious, and nationalist identities are given precedence in a world of inequality and critical scarcities of water, energy, food, and health, there will be oppression and widespread abuse. For the modern world the identity of the part, whether state, religion, or ethnicity, has consistently prevailed over the identity of the whole, whether that whole is understood to be humanity or world. As a result, globally reasonable policies to control global warming or world poverty or the instability of financial markets seem unattainable. Primacy accorded to the national interest continues to obstruct the fulfillment of the human interest.

 

            In earlier periods of history this kind of dispersal of authority was sustainable, although often cruel in maintaining hierarchies as during the colonial period and in relation to the annihilation of many indigenous peoples whose pre-modern wisdom has much to teach us about survival in the emergent post-modern world of scarcities and limits.

 

            At the same time, a plural world order allowed for diversities that were consistent with the variety of religions, civilizations, cultural traditions, and worldviews. Warfare and exploitation made such a world order morally deficient, but so were the envisioned alternatives associated with a global state or world government. A potential tyranny of the whole seemed to most of us worse than the anarchic failures arising in a world of sovereign states.

 

            Increasingly, conflict patterns based on the technologies of oppression and resistance are illustrating the menacing realities of a borderless world. Drones ignore borders. Cyber warfare is heedless of space. We cannot go on in  this manner much longer without bloodying our heads against the stone walls of history. We are living as a species on borrowed time. It is not the occasion for panic, but it is a time to recalibrate our relations with one another, with nature, with past and future, with this inevitable and mostly invisible transition of mentalities underway– from the enclosures and openings of a spatially oriented world of borders to the before and after of a temporally shaped world now and in the future beset by scarcities and limits.

 

            In such a global circumstance, human identity is not so much a choice as a destiny thrust upon us. It can produce a spectrum of responses. The tendency is to strengthen border controls, increase surveillance, indulge in blame games, and build high, electrified walls, making sovereign territory resemble at its best ‘a gated community’ of gargantuan proportions or at its worst ‘a maximum security prison.’ In this sense, the captivity of Gaza prefigures one kind of regressive future that resists the imperatives of a world of limits, seeking to lull us in the belief that we can remain safe in a world of borders.

 

            And so my orientation is in support of those who struggle against the odds, and for freedom, and it is in solidarity with those who believe that empathy and compassion bring greater security than guns and guard dogs. For me this means a celebration of human identity, and a citizenship that is derived primarily not from the blessings of a state or the sense of national belonging, but from the feeling that life is a journey toward a just and humane future, a pilgrimage endowed with spiritual significance throughout its unfolding. It is an engagement with impossible possibilities for the future, dreams and dramas of human fulfillment, and the person who fully endorses such a journey and the human identity that accompanies it is what I choose to call, and aspire to be:  ‘a citizen pilgrim.’