Friday, August 14, 2009

Some Thoughts on Human Brokenness

On Wednesday, I was able to catch up with my friend. It was good to be with him and talk about a whole lot of stuff. But this is not a post about him or our day together but rather I'm flagging two areas which we discussed together because they were areas I had been thinking of writing about for some time. One of them, the state of universities and academic life, is something I've had requests to write about on Facebook threads recently since I began a very short term gig with the NTEU this week (and which really kicks into earnest next week), But I'm not going to write about that tonight.

My friend and I also spent some time talking about what would comprise our ideal church. This was also something I had been wanting to explore here as a follow on from my posts on St Mary's. But there was something my friend said the other day, a quality of his ideal church, which I wanted to explore here but which probably wont stay focussed on the ideal church at all. In fact I know it's going to take me into matters biblical and beyond but that's one of the good things about the blog medium is that when you start a post you never quite know where you're going to end up. That's my experience anyway.

An essential quality of my friend's ideal church had to do with the clergy and it was that they readily acknowledge their own brokenness, that being broken is part of being human. To be human is to screw up - we aren't God and we aren't perfect and we shouldn't pretend that we are. But, of course, for clergy all too often rather than acknowledging brokenness they model authoritativeness, control, expertise, capability, power. And after all, they are in leadership positions, they are the religious 'expert', they've spent several years in training. And clergy in Catholic traditions have the additional awesome charisms of consecration of the bread and wine in the liturgy and absolution of sins/screw-ups. To acknowledge brokenness, to even model brokenness, then, would appear to fly in the face of everything they represent.

However I was struck by the sense that part of the power of biblical religion, part of the power of the biblical texts, whether they are are Old Testament or New, lies in the fact that human brokenness is front and centre in shaping the narratives, is a key component of all the characters we encounter in the stories there. David, the hero everyone loves (and David means beloved) including God, including the Samaritans (as I was surprised to discover when reading their alternative history of Israel), David stuffs up in a big way with Bathsheba and Uriah and also with Absalom, Tamar and Amnon. And it's not just David. Moses stuffs up and is barred from entering the Promised Land. Both Abraham and Sarah stuff up. Jacob stuffs up, Jacob is the consummate trickster. Jacob's sons stuff up too and his daughter in law, Tamar, makes a virtue out of a major stuff up. The Israelites themselves are always stuffing up. (Curiously, one character doesn't seem to stuff up and that is Joshua so much so that later rabbinic tradition had to reinvent Joshua as the klutz who started forgetting the law from the day Moses died, thus leading the Israelites astray. A very poignant midrash has Achan accuse Joshua of breaching the Law in the way he conducts the proceedings that lead to Achan's subsequent execution). Now this focus on human stuffed-upness, human brokenness serves an ideological purpose on the part of the Old Testament authors (who I think were, amongst other things abjecting the past as a way to explain Israel's situation as subject to Gentiles and dispersed amongst the nations and also to bolster the claims of particular Temples for pre-eminence). Nevertheless the stories turned out to be bigger than the ideological imperatives of their creation. Thus they still have power today in a very different world and very different cultural settings.

The New Testament, too, further develops these themes of the stuffed up nature of being human. Peter, Paul, the Prodigal Son, the woman caught in adultery, Judas, Mary Magdalen, all of these and more are anti-heroic characters. They are all broken, they are all human. And thus they speak to us, resonate with us, enable us to see ourselves in all our flawed beauty.

Anti-heroism is also a key component in the Lord of the Rings which my flatmate has been watching again this week. I've been watching some of it with him and hence its appearance in this post. Sure there's lots of battle scenes and deeds of heroism but the main action, the crucial action revolves around the unlikely triad of Frodo, Sam and Smeagol/Gollum. Frodo is an anti-hero who is bound to Gollum in a shared experience of creeping corruption, nay destruction at the hands of the Ring of Power. Ironically, it is Gollum who saves the day in the end because he is so gone, so destroyed by the Ring that he no longer thinks of his own safety and survival. Sam of course is driven mad by his disgust at, even jealousy of Gollum who clearly is a focus of Frodo's pity if not love (perhaps because Frodo sees himself in Gollum). As a reader, I was often exasperated by Sam's inablity to understand Gollum, his inability to feel some sort of empathy for Gollum. And if there is one thing that I found remarkable about the story (apart from the extraordinary celebration of love between/among males) it was the capacity for us to see Gollum as a fellow creature, broken stuffed up, like ourselves, to see ourselves in Gollum. I certainly could anyway and could feel not just pity but empathy for this creature. And not just these three, LotR abounds in characters who are flawed and broken. Many of them are destroyed by it, especially if they are the great and the good, and others muddle on through working some good despite (or because of) their brokenness.

LotR is thus a very biblical text and perhaps that's where its appeal and its power lies. Despite the veneer of sword and sorcery, its real power lies in its graphic portrayal of human (and elven and dwarvish and hobbit and entish and wizard) brokenness. Likewise the biblical texts, because in them we can find a mirror for ourselves as flawed stuffed up beings, quite the antithesis of what capitalism values and to the way patriarchal masculinities are constructed. The greatest insult in a capitalist world is 'loser'. But the reality is most of us are losers because only a handful can win under the law of capitalism. Patriarchal masculinity decrees that we males be tough, in control, invulnerable, impenetrable and capitalism gives the added imperative to compete, to get to the top, by trampling on our neighbours if need be. By doing so of course we deny our own feelings, our mutual dependence; we become the enforcers of a system that enslaves us, a system that doesn't want us to see our own frailties, our own stuffed-upness, our mutual vulnerability lest we turn away from its delusions and even worse develop a real solidarity.

Perhaps then a key way of reading the biblical texts for the purposes of liberation is to explore the way they reveal us, reflect us in our frailties, our vulnerabilities, our brokenness. And not to condemn either but to understand, to empathise, yes, to love.

And hope I have done justice here to my friend's insight.

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