The Discontents of Empire (IV)

It may help to think that what [St Mark] does is to help us see events [of the Passion] strictly from the perspective of the victim. When the victims of totalitarian violence and tyranny in our own age tell their stories, as many have, they sound very much like this. Victims typically don’t really know what’s happening; no one explains, no one justifies what is going on, and they only know that everything is stacked against them and that they have no hope of getting out of this nightmare alive. It’s the world captured so memorably in the fiction of Franz Kafka as well as the records of those who have been caught up in the arbitrary terror of political oppression. Perhaps we understand Mark a little bit better if we recognise the echoes of Kafka’s account of what it is like to be locked into the workings of a meaningless, nonsensical, but completely irresistible system of power, devoted to your destruction.

Rowan Williams, Meeting God in Mark, p54–5 (my italics)

I was stopped in my tracks by this passage when I first read it and I can’t get it out of my head. Without wishing in any way to minimise the outrage due to those who are the recipients of ‘totalitarian violence,’ I contend that we are all “locked into the workings of a meaningless, nonsensical, but completely irresistible system of power, devoted to [our] destruction,” an arbitrary system that doesn’t want our flourishing but only to use us as a resource, the consequence of which is destruction.

An inordinate amount of political debate, newsprint, and radio air-time are devoted to talking about The Economy. How can more money be made? All Hail, the Economy! Business, whose sole aim is to make money, requires the sucking dry of so-called ‘resources’, the workforce (human resources), the planet (natural resources), and the consumer.

Many business and corporation executives ignore God’s humanising purposes, and speak rather of profit as the “bottom line.” But this is a capitalist heresy… Businesses exist to serve the general welfare. Profit is the means, not the end. When a business fails to serve the general welfare … it forfeits its right to exist.

Walter Wink, The Powers That Be

Consumerism and its thugs for hire, advertising and entertainment, are agents of the power that wants our destruction. Consumerism is a system that wants our money, wants our attention, wants our time, wants our dreams and desires and longings, it wants to keep us in the thrall of addiction to ‘stuff’. It is the inviting voice of the tempter promising life in abundance but offering only ashes. It does not want our flourishing. It wants our life, and at the end of the day is devoted to our destruction.

This system wants our destruction, not our flourishing, not the flourishing of you and me, not the flourishing of people in distant lands who sweat to make our toys, and not the flourishing of the other beings with whom we share this amazing world.

A system that expects more work, daily improvement, forever bigger and better and more, a system that can never rest and allow rest, is a system that is inhuman and death-dealing.

This, for me, is the underlying metaphor of the film, The Matrix. Here’s Morpheus talking to Neo:

Morpheus and battery

The human body generates more bio-electricity than a 120-volt battery and over 25,000 BTU’s of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need. There are fields – endless fields – where human beings are no longer born, we are grown. For the longest time, I wouldn’t believe it, and then I saw the fields with my own eyes. Watched them liquefy the dead so they could be fed intravenously to the living.
And standing there, facing the pure horrifying precision, I came to realise the obviousness of the truth. What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world, built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this.

The Matrix

This is the use that human so-called ‘resources’ are put to, as well as the much bigger problem of the destruction of the natural so-called ‘resources’ of our home, this planet. We are the oppressed, the persecuted. The system drains us and then requires as to learn to be resilient and to keep on working and buying. No need to wonder at the level of distress, depression, and desperation in our society.

The things we rightly abhor – organised crime, sex and slave trafficking, tyranny, and ‘totalitarian violence’ – are the apotheosis of the selfsame system that seduces and promises to satisfy us on a daily basis in the shopping mall and the goggle-box.

So, what are we to do? How can we make a stand against this?

I want to say something simple. We are all far too busy. We are in the thrall of corporations – ideologies, cities, governments, global businesses, shop, churches, the entertainment ‘industry’ – that want our compliance, time, energy, attention, and money, but which don’t care for us, and are not concerned for our good, or for the flourishing of life. This is wrong. God is not like this towards us. God does not burden us with these expectations. Why do we accept these terms of engagement from each other? As individuals, and as the church, we should stand against this in what we say and how we live.

This is not easy. Can we find God in a busy life? Can we find God in the City? The answers to both the questions is clearly, “Yes,” because there is nowhere God is not. But that doesn’t make a busy life and a city life a good life, nor does it mean that this is the life that God wants for us, nor is it a life that promotes human flourishing. I think we should take a stand against busyness, against the regime, against all empire-building, which demands our life-blood. But I don’t know how to take that stand. I myself am too busy. I am caught up in the “discontents of empire”, in the thrall of entertainment-ism and consumerism, which wants my destruction, not my flourishing, and my own ‘caught-up-ness’ is at the expense of others – other humans and other beings, including that Great Other, Mother Earth.

What action might we take? I think it must certainly not add anything to a life that makes it even busier. Here are a few thoughts.

Remember to breathe. To be given a breath, to know that you breathe, to receive the air deep into this body, is to be the beneficiary of a miracle. It is a miracle that there is something and not nothing. It is a miracle that you exist. To breathe, and to know that you breathe, and to know that you are the beneficiary of a miracle, is know that you are already enough, that everything you could possibly need has already been given.

“Peace,” as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “is every step.”

Allow this miracle to grace you with a fundamental gratitude for being. Gratitude, as Meister Eckhart suggests, is the only prayer you’ll ever need.

Remember that God requires nothing of us. Really. How could the Creator of the Universe need anything from us? God wants us to be happy.

This life, this mode of being, is not for long, so love it, don’t waste it.

2 thoughts on “The Discontents of Empire (IV)

  1. You describe a world that is clearly undesirable, unattractive and thoroughly unsatisfactory – but it also attracts us and holds us enthralled. You put forward a view of how this arises – rampant consumerism.
    Your description reminds me of Buddhism’s three poisons: Aversion/illwill, Greed/sensual attachment, and Confusion/delusion.
    Meanwhile seeing ourselves caught-up in our caught-up-ness seems to cry out for liberation.
    As you say, breathing mindfully and returning to a settled and expansive home base, gives us the opportunity to hold our pain and our desire in a place that soothes and heals. Held in that home base, we find ourselves resting in a part of ourselves that is not us at all! It is so much bigger than we are, and a new perspective arises. Is this a step toward liberation? Can wisdom arise? Can that broader perspective, and less ruffled and reactive state, last when I next venture into all the pulls and pushes of the modern world? Can I act more wisely and more compassionately? Can I take a small stand? Can I make a little difference? Maybe a little.. Maybe not… Maybe one day… Till then, I can return home knowing I am accepted and loved and held. Maybe that is enough. Maybe that is happiness 🙂

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