Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Truce of God 1: Fears and Fantasies

This is the first in a series of summary reflections on Rowan Williams' classic The Truce of God. This work was originally written as The Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book, 1983 (when Robert Runcie held the See), and was revised in 2005 during +Rowan's early tenure. I'm essentially posting my own notes on each chapter, along with reflections on how the book seems fresh and relevant now, and for the church in South Africa.

The book begins with myriad examples of pop culture's obsession with the “monster” which unleashes violence and chaos on an otherwise innocent world. This monster can take many forms. So we have nature being itself, and humans tempting it (e.g. Jaws), and nature being out-of-control and invading human space (e.g. King Kong). And we have humans: sometimes in the grips of the supernatural (e.g. The Exorcist) or otherwise out-of-control or irrational (e.g. terrorists--both in the news and in the movies), and other times victims of their own technological creativity.

Williams extrapolates from all this the idea that "we" (and he means "we in the west") feel or fear ourselves deeply bereft of agency. We sense we are passive victims of our own power (you just had to go into that water, didn't you?), and that the world "outside" has responded to our power with threat—threat which has forced us against our better nature [because we really do see ourselves as basically peaceful and good] to arm ourselves to the teeth. As Williams comments, “… we are deeply determined to imagine violence as something whose origins lie outside ourselves, so that we can maintain some belief in our innocence. But the price of this is a real uneasiness and confusion about what we can and cannot do, about the nature of our power and freedom.” (Williams:17–18) Hence our fear... and our security gates, razor wire, and "Pasop!" signs.

Behind our fear lies what Williams terms a “sickness of the spirit”. The Gospel diagnoses such sickness, and gives hope through the possibility of repentance and conversion, which means “retriev[ing] the vision of one’s own responsibility, and [learning] to look with critical openness at one’s life and the shared life of society” (Williams:21). The embodiment of this possibility is the church: “the rationale of the Church’s life is irreducibly a matter of showing the results of an act of divine reconciliation in terms of a distinctive kind of community.” (Williams:23) Of course, the church fails at this, and “its own internal life is regularly the site of bitter and divisive conflict”, while “its interventions in the public square … are readily characterized (and written off) as both abstract and amateur.” (Williams:23) But since the existence of the church is itself a challenge to “fatalism and false claims to power”, so Williams will undertake in the rest of the book to show why this is, and what it asks of believers (Williams:24).

I think 'sickness of the spirit' is a good diagnosis of the passivity I've observed (and listened to) amongst many South Africans. Granting some significant exceptions, whites have yet to come to see their responsibility for the past. In a strange way, the mirror of their fears is the "bling culture" they disparage among the new elite (and the bulletproof Mercedes' that whisk the President to and from state occasions in high speed, "blue light" convoys). All the while they can see the legacy of apartheid continue to ring the suburbs with shacks. What you hear from whites is a deep sense of powerlessness in opulence (economist Sampie Terreblanche at a conference here in Stellenbosch a couple of weeks argued that things have never been better for white South Africans economically, and that they have benefited enormously from the settlement of 1990-94).

I think the churches here (but not only here) have failed to embody the kind of community that challenges fatalism. In a society where still most people seem to live in what theologian Dirkie Smit once called "different symbolic universes", the church is called to provide the means to encounter others in truth--even if that truth is disturbing. Or as another theologian, Nico Koopman, said a couple of days ago, the church should be a space where “proximity” to the other challenges reigning social constructions. Alas the churches I've visited during this trip (black and white) remain monolithic in terms of class or colour. So how does one "re-boot" the church?

The challenge to genuine encounter with the other is more than simply an intellectual call. I feel the paradox in myself: I occupy a place not untypical of whites here, safely ensconced behind a security gate in a flat with a wonderful view of the mountains. Yet with all that, I experience a greater sense of anxiety than I do in living in Edmonton (you just had to go out last night, didn't you?). This is a sick society, and I also am sick. What remedy will Williams offer?

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