woensdag 27 april 2016

Spiritual violence

It recently was twenty years ago that seven monks were kidnapped from their monastery in Tibhirine by Algerian Islamists. Two months later, on May 30, 1996, only their heads were found.

They had let it happen. The monks knew of the advancing Islamist violence in the region. They did consider to leave, but decided to remain in their monastery in solidarity with the local population and to refuse protection by the military.

And time and again at every commemoration, most recently by Stefan Waanders in Trouw, there are those gushy comments which extol the monks’ behavior as a sign of ultimate sacrifice readiness. This time Waanders adds to his article Brother Christian’s ‘testament’, in which he sums up the essence of his life. “This is a testament of the great spiritual texts of the last century”, says Waanders.

In the text, Brother Christian de Chergé, the prior of the monastery, speaks of his willingness to die out of solidarity with the Algerian Muslims who for more then a century were humiliated by the French. The respect that he thus shows to victims of French colonialism is certainly sympathetic, although I do not see how an Islamist massacre can benefit the image of Islam.

What stings me, and what makes questionable the whole gesture of the monks for me, is the following passage in Christian’s testament.

“Of course my death will seem to confirm all those who derided me as naive or idealistic: ‘Tell me, what do you think about it now!’ But people need to know that what torments and makes me curious most, will finally get a liberating answer. Because I will, if it pleases God, I will be allowed to let my sight be united with that of the Father to look with him to his Muslim children. I will see them as he sees them, bathed in the light of the glory of Christ, fruit of His Passion and coated with the gift of the Spirit, who always with hidden joy will create community and, playing with all the differences, will restore the similarities.”

This text strikes me as a mark of spiritual imperialism, one of the most unsympathetic kind, and, I fear, exemplary of Christianity. When reading such a passage I ask myself in despair: Is there no one who will see how here, from under a blanket of fluffy piety, in one blow every deviating, differently defined identity is assimilated to what for this monk rises over everyone and everything? Gone all otherness, away with plurality. Doesn’t anybody – this monk, or the author of the article, or the public – feel that there is coarse mental violence, pure imperialism at stake?

I know, irenic souls like Erasmus and others had exactly the same view. To me that only confirms what I tend to consider as the blind spot in our civilization, namely that mental pressure is not perceived as violence, and therewith as condemable as physical violence. Mental pressure is not innocent, if only because frustrated mental pressure can still lead to physical violence. As Luther’s dealings with the Jews can illustrate: when his preaching could not convince the Jews, he towards the end of his life turned to hate speech against the Jews.

This has got much to do with Thinking for someone else. Also see Reversal of values.

woensdag 20 april 2016

Humane Slaveholders

We like so much to hear it: that, while in Antiquity Jews like the Greeks and Romans held slaves, they did so in a slightly more humane way.

Slavery will be dealt with intensively again this week, because at the Pesach seder we remember how we were slaves in Egypt. And how we have been liberated, but always kept a sensitivity to what it means to be a slave.

From that sensitivity we cherish the thought that there are several ways to keep slaves. For the Romans, for instance, the life of a slave did not count at all. Illustrative of the entire honor- and lawlessness of Roman slaves was the usual punishment for them, namely  crucifixion. Which was applied i.a. to quell harshly the revolt of the slave leader Spartacus (around 72 before the beginning of the era). It led to the crucifixion of more than 6,000 slaves along the road from Capua to Rome.

Such a complete denial of the humanity of slaves is supposed not to fit with the rules of the Torah, which states that the compatriots, who had sold themselves into slavery because they could not pay their debts, should be released in the Sabbath year (every seven years). And is written on the Sabbath as a weekly day of rest that it is meant for everyone, including slaves, servants and foreigners and even livestock.

But historical-scientific findings seem to leave little of that almost idyllic picture, in practice these provisions probably have not functioned as they had been intended. Even from rabbinic discussions on these texts, says researcher Stoutjesdijk from Tilburg University, it appears that the rules were not at all respected.

That might be a downer for our sense of self. Remains thát we so badly want it: to promote humane relations within our sometimes ruthless socio-economic systems. Let’s continue to want that, and if the Passover story helps us do this, continue to tell the story.

vrijdag 8 april 2016

Humanly spoken

Humanly spoken, in these difficult times one’s attention has to be with the victims of all this misery. And of course, with what we can do to prevent attacks. And fortunately, over the whole that attention is there.

But that does not prevent me to be interested in the underlying, almost philosophical shifts brought about by ever closer creeping terrorist violence.

Take this question of Leonie Breebaart in Trouw: “Is it really so bad that the Dutch sympathize more strongly with the victims in Brussels than with those in, say, Nigerian Maiduguri, where last week 22 worshippers were killed in a mosque?” And the sober reply from philosopher and ethicist Rutger Claassen: “What is close affects you more”.

That obviously has never been different, but for a long time we dared not say that aloud. From the sixties and seventies, at least for the progressive part of the Netherlands, solidarity with the oppressed was supposed to be limitless and global, without distinction as to geography, nationality or religion. Right now Breebaart asks: “Is not that a very abstract idea?”

Not so long ago it was considered unacceptably hypocritical to deplore one victim (eg a Belgian) more than another (eg a Nigerian). Right now Breebaart states: “But doesn’t it work just like that? Doesn’t there remain a tension between the idea of solidarity and the feeling that you have for people you know?” Say between thick and thin relationships.

As to me, these observations confirm an already very old Jewish truth. Namely that closeness and ‘the particularistic’ matter, and that relationships within your own community, or close in some other way, are of a different quality than the relationships you maintain beyond. Warmer, more intense, thicker. And that they are allowed to be so, without you being indecent to the rest of the world. That’s the way it may work indeed.

Until recently it was risky to formulate those thoughts, in a world where a noisy elite was universally oriented and put away all ethnocentrism and particularism as hopelessly outdated. That elite is resetting itself – and I hope it will not go into a neo-nationalistic direction but towards the recognition that charity begins at home. Because that seems to me an act of commendable realism.

What concerns me is that the spectrum is shifting in its entirety. For the West, I think that’s ok, it may very well return a bit of its haughty universalism. But Israel for a long time already is particularistic enough and could give some more attention to universal values. However, the recent Pew Report points into a different direction: a quarter of the Israeli population would want to trade democracy for theocracy and 48 percent of Israeli Jews agreed with the statement ‘Arabs must be put out of Israel’.

That does not feel right.

Also see Countries without borders