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In the face of 'the globalisation of indifference' is there still a place for mercy? (Gillian Paterson)

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Colloquium promoted by the Marist Fathers took place in La Neylière (Lyon) on 29-31 March 2016 having as theme «In the face of 'the globalisation of indifference' is there still a place for mercy?».

1. Dialogue

Fortress Europe and ‘the globalisation of indifference’

It’s a delight and an honour to be here, and a huge privilege to have been invited to give this opening talk in your colloquium. I confess that my first response was to be overwhelmed by the title itself. ‘In the face of the globalisation of indifference, is there still a place for mercy?’ This felt very much like a question off the Oxford entrance paper. ‘Answer on two sides of A4 paper.’ So I sat there, wringing my hands and distracting myself with cups of coffee. And as somebody who tends to think more in terms of stories than of big concepts, I thought woops: I can’t do this! Until suddenly it came to me that in fact this is a story: that the question we’re asking here is absolutely central to the narrative of the present papacy and the vision behind it; and as far as I understand it (and forgive me if I get it wrong), to the Marist charism too.

First, ‘the globalisation of indifference’.

This phrase surfaced in the earliest days of Pope Francis’ papacy. Just after his consecration, on his first visit outside Rome, Francis was talking with migrants who’d recently arrived on the island of Lampedusa. He hit the headlines by weighing into the rich world for its lack of concern for their suffering, blaming this on a ‘globalisation of indifference’ in the world at large. "We have become used to the suffering of others. It doesn't affect us. It doesn't interest us. It's not our business," he said, bitterly.

It’s now three years since the Lampedusa sermon. In those years, the flood of migrants has become a tsunami, and our response (as Europeans) has fluctuated. We feel horrified compassion at – for example – the deaths of children, the starving families huddled behind razor wire fences, and the bulldozing of ad hoc camps which have provided some kind of minimal security for their inhabitants. But we’re shocked into greater caution by the sight of angry young men storming closed borders or attacking young women.  Then we feel helpless guilt about our continent’s paralysis in developing an acceptable, compassionate and workable response. Indifference? Well, maybe: but also pity, horror, fear, guilt, and sheer helplessness. The truth is that we just don’t know what to do.

I’m focusing on these apocalyptic images of migration because it’s in the public eye just now, and also because that’s the scenario we’re struggling with at Notre Dame Refugee Centre, in London. Nevertheless, the refugees coming from East and South are only one strand in the apocalypse facing us in Europe. Consider these ‘signs of the times’.

  • We are paralysed as we take in the possible implications of the conflicts in the Middle East.

  • Economists and politicians are privately dreading economic collapse, because they know that our governments have never resolved the problems which led to the financial crash of 2008.

  • The media speak of the cumulative effects of climate change, but we are divided about how to respond.

  • All over Europe, it’s become hard for young people (even elite graduates) to find stable employment or secure housing.

  • In recent years, terrorist acts have become a fact of life in our cities and are likely to become more frequent.

  • Right wing political parties are gaining ground all over Europe. It’s not that the left has all the answers, but the polarisation of political narratives has meant that less and less space is left for honest dialogue.

Which brings me to Laudato Si’, published in 2015. LS is not just soggy environmentalism, calling for bigger airline taxes or help for the polar bears in the Arctic. Rather, its subject matter is the whole political, ethical, human and economic context of our lives together in this our ‘common home’. The issue of migration is viscerally connected to these other issues: a movement of peoples, tectonic in scale, that’s on a par with global warming or the rising levels of our oceans. Flood barriers and sea-walls won’t stop the one; iron bars and razor wire won’t stop the other.

What Francis is proposing in LS is a reinvigorated anthropology that locates human relationships (with each other and with our world) at the centre of our attention. To do this involves treading a perilous road between two extremes. At one extreme, are those who cling doggedly to the idea of progress, saying that what’s needed is more technology. At the other extreme are the ascetics who view men and women’s aspirations as a threat, per se, to the global ecosystem, and believe that all forms of technological progress should be banned. (LS 60)

Most dangerous, says Francis, is the “technocratic paradigm”, which clouds our understanding by gradually colonising our minds and framing our existence. This paradigm hangs on the idea of a subject (which means you or me, or the institutions and nations we’re involved in) who, via logical and rational procedures, progressively assumes ownership and then gains control over his or her environment. Our surroundings become quantifiable resources to be controlled and used. Thinking outside the box becomes impossible: despite its promises of liberation, the box has become a prison.

Of course men and women have always used and intervened in nature. The world, in Genesis, was God’s gift to the people God created. But for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities it offered. The disciplines through which we understood the world (e.g. science, religion, literature etc.) were marshalled in support of this exercise.

Now, Francis suggests, it is we who are the ones to lay our hands on things and other people, extracting everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting that these are fellow human beings or limited natural resources we are using. The very language we use comes out of this paradigm. My colleagues are described as ‘human resources’; sex is something to get, have or to buy. [ref Laudato Si’, 106] This ‘technocratic paradigm’, then, is at the heart of a mindset that’s sub-consciously undermining our ability to think ethically, and is (at least in part) responsible for what, in the Lampedusa homily, he describes as ‘the globalisation of indifference’.

Mercy: God’s ‘identity card’

And now mercy. The story goes that in the days before his election, 3 years ago, somebody put into Francis’ hands a copy of Walter Kaspar’s Mercy. He’s said to have read this from cover to cover during those days of waiting, and it had a powerful effect on him. Three days after his consecration, celebrating a public Mass for the first time as Pope, he spoke spontaneously. ‘The message of Jesus,’ he said, ‘is Mercy. For me … it is the Lord’s strongest message.’ Since then he has spoken repeatedly about the centrality of mercy to the Christian life.

The word ‘mercy’ derives from Misericordia, which means, literally, having a heart (cor) which is open to pity or wretchedness (miserere). In The Name of God is Mercy (the little book which Francis has written in collaboration with Vatican journalist Andrea Tournielli) the pope says: ‘Mercy is the divine attribute which embraces, it is God’s giving himself to us and bowing to forgive. … mercy is God’s identity card.’ (NGM p6)

Why, he asks, is humanity so in need of mercy? (p13). Because humanity, he says, is wounded. Either it thinks it doesn’t know how to cure these wounds, or it believes that are incurable. And that leads to the ‘indifference’ we speak of in our title, whose flip side is the helplessness or sense of inevitability that goes along with the technocratic paradigm. And this sense of helpless confusion, Francis suggests, is what increasingly frames the value-set we bring to the table.

He quotes Benedict XVI. ‘Mercy,’ says Benedict, ‘is in reality the core of the Gospel message; it is the name of God himself, the face with which he revealed himself in the Old Testament, and then fully in Jesus Christ, incarnation of Creative and Redemptive Love.’ (B16 in NGM p5) This we act on, says Francis, ‘by thinking of the Church as a field hospital, where treatment is given above all to those who are most wounded.’ (NGM p6)

However, when Francis talks of mercy, we should be very cautious about reading our own desired agendas into what he says. Writing for Osservatore Romano, my colleague Damian Howard says: “Pope Francis’ appeal to mercy has been interpreted by some as indicative of a liberalism which would dearly like to see Christianity adapt itself to the mores of secular culture. It is impossible to overstate how wrong-headed is such a charge, for mercy is supremely counter-cultural in a world dominated by the technocratic paradigm; it is its victim, to be sure, but also one of its most effective anti-venoms.’ (Damian Howard SJ in an as-yet-unpublished article)

So yes, forgiveness and welcome, solidarity and dialogue are at mercy’s heart. Self-righteousness and judgementalism have no place there. But this ‘mercy’ is no soft option, and Francis deplores the banal optimism that offers salvation on the cheap, without repentance and a commitment to personal or institutional ‘metanoia’ or change. Seeking to understand why rules are sometimes broken does not mean chucking the rule-book in the bin.

For example, in Evangelii Gaudium, Francis speaks uncompromisingly about the issue of abortion.

‘The Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. … This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernisations’. It is not ‘progressive’ to try and resolve problems by eliminating human life.’ (EG 214)

Immediately, though, he enters a different discourse: the world of human praxis, from which he has stressed, again and again, that doctrinal and moral certainties must never be divorced.

“On the other hand, it is also true that we have done very little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such a painful situation?” (EG 214)

‘On the other hand,’ he says. Four times, in EG, he uses this phrase. Because Francis is trying to balance two kinds of moral discourses: one that (rightly) takes an absolute view on the principle of the value of human life, and another that (rightly) exhibits a compassionate appreciation for vulnerable people in the context of their lived human realities. What that means, he says, is that there can be no ‘monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance’. (EG 40)

Critics (there are many, and they include members of my own family) have suggested that ‘opening doors to mercy’ is little more than a crowd-pleasing exercise in facile pity or cheap forgiveness. No. Mercy, rather, is what illuminates honest dialogue between people of good faith, in which that which is ‘on the other hand’ is heard, the violence of separation acknowledged, and we help each other to come to an understanding of just how painfully unfitted we human beings are to the task of sitting in judgement. Mercy involves building bridges, not fences. The prize, though, is the healed, joined up dialogue our world so desperately needs. (Useful refs in LS5)

At this point it might be helpful to recap what has already been said. We started with Francis’ sermon at Lampedusa, and the influence of Walter Kaspar’s Mercy, and turned then to his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Here he urges us to prioritise compassion and forgiveness, repeatedly using the phrase ‘on the other hand’, and concluding that ‘there can be no monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance’. (EG 40) In The Name of God is Mercy, he urges us to look on the Church as a field hospital, not just for individuals but for the human race. In Laudato Si’ he responds to ‘the globalisation of indifference’ with a plea for a transformed anthropology of what it means to be human in the context of ‘our common home’. In this, we are up against a toxic discourse which Francis describes as ‘the technocratic paradigm’. Without our being aware of it, this undermines our humanity and shapes people’s decisions at all levels. It’s by developing a discourse of mercy that we are enabled to stand up to it. And that involves a profound identification with the human condition, and also a respect for each individual’s truth.

2. Dialogue and discourse

Now at last I’ve arrived at what was billed as the main topic of this talk, which was DIALOGUE.

FOCCISA-Nordic: a case study

For the last twenty years, my work has been largely in the field of HIV and AIDS. Some years ago I was invited by the Norwegian Council of Churches to be an external consultant to a process of reflection being conducted by FOCCISA-Nordic – a title given to an ongoing partnership between the councils of churches of eleven Southern African and five Nordic countries. The task was to accompany and document a process of theological reflection on the theme of AIDS-related stigma. Outcomes were to include a publication (One Body), exchange placements, clearer policies on grant funding and a series of international conferences and workshops. So the first challenge was to set up a working dialogue between the two groups, to which end we had an initial meeting in Johannesburg where everyone was very polite to each other.

Now it goes without saying that HIV and its context are very different in these two regions. For example, in Southern Africa the idea of sin is ever-present, especially in relation to sex. In Nordic countries, though, the prevailing liberal morality can result in a virtual denial of the existence of sin, especially in relation to sex.

It was at the second meeting, in Sweden, that things started to fall apart. I’d arrived a day late because I’d been at a funeral. Anyway, I walked in and went straight to the room we’d been allocated which, to my surprise, was empty. Paper on tables, redundant powerpoint still on the screen, but no people. Where were they? I texted the organizer who, it turned out, was stumping around gloomily in the garden.

What had happened was this. In evaluating the first meeting, in Johannesburg, it had been realised that none of the Nordic participants were themselves actually living with HIV or AIDS, and it was agreed that this should be rectified in future. So come the second meeting, in Stockholm, the leader of the Southern African group found himself sitting down between two men, one from Denmark and one from Sweden, both living openly in homosexual relationships. Distraught, he rose to his feet and called on his whole contingent to walk out. If the two gay men didn’t withdraw from the group, the African contingent would go back to Africa. The book was off: any mention of the words ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ have it fatally contaminated it in the eyes of its church audience.

But in the Nordic countries, the history, profile and aetiology of HIV are connected with men who are in sexual relationships with other men. Although many women and children are also infected, you cannot talk about ‘AIDS related stigma’ without also talking about ‘gay-related stigma’. The problem is that in most Southern African countries the whole idea of homosexuality is culturally taboo and legally regarded as criminal. Stalemate, it seemed.

Now this is a much-shortened version of a fascinating and important story. The FOCCISA-Nordic process involved bitter disagreements, in which participants tried to understand the apparently irrational values, assumptions or beliefs of others. In the event, though, these disagreements turned out to be some of the most valuable moments in the entire process of dialogue. The experience of watching people from another culture struggling painfully with their own taboos gives a profound insight into the human condition, and into the shared yet infinitely diverse character of human culture. The greatest value of dialogue may not be what it teaches us about others, so much as its potential for propelling us into a deeper understanding of ourselves.

In the end, FOCCISA-Nordic has turned out to be an excellent and productive venture, and I’m proud to have been involved. Some years later, I met the leader of the African group, who has now gone on to be a really ‘big cheese’ in his own, African Church. ‘Do you remember that day?’ he asked. ‘I have never been so shocked in my life. But now, you know, I look around me here, and I realise that we are blind to a lot of things in our own culture. That was the most important thing I learned from FOCCISA-Nordic.’

And what finally brought the group together and ensured it survival? Well, dinner I suppose. There was only one dining room, one big table. Either we sat round it together or we starved.

A note about discourse theory

Now in recent years I’ve been trying to coordinate a group we call ‘the Catholic Network on Population and Development’. In organizing our discussions, we have been very much influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s work on discourse.

For example.

My husband is a doctor – a specialist in public health and infectious disease, so you’d think we would have really useful conversations. But in the early days we just had these terrible rows. He approached the epidemic through a bio-medical frame: which means treatment for individuals, lots of doctors and nurses, compulsory testing of those at risk, disclosure of HIV status, and the notification of contacts. But I ‘saw’ it through a development frame: meaning community mobilisation, empowerment of women, sociological and economic analysis of the causes of vulnerability, the training of local health workers and so on. Each on our separate set of tramlines, we came to the issue through different discourses: the discourse of bio-medicine and the discourse of development. But this, of course, should not be an either/or choice. In projecting a particular way of knowing, each of these frameworks is, in its own way, true.

Discourse theory, then, offers a system for unpacking what’s going on when a dialogue seems to be going nowhere. A discourse is not language as such: it’s a language that represents a particular, subjective worldview that the speaker is aiming to communicate. The speaker often believes that his or her world view a given, perhaps not realising that this worldview (which seems so obvious) is not shared by others. On the contrary: it seems to the speaker that his or her position is self-evidently right, and you’d have to be crazy to question. That was the case with my husband, and with both camps in my Stockholm meeting.

These opposing discourses can also exist in the same person. In Kenya, while I was researching churches’ approaches to HIV and AIDS, I met a young priest who also worked part-time as a hospital chaplain. ‘I don’t really know what I think about AIDS,’ he said. ‘When I’m in Church I think it’s a sin’ (the idea of sin being a central concept in Christian discourse). ‘When I’m in the hospital I think it’s a virus’ (which is a concept taken from bio-medical discourse). ‘But when I’m back in my village, I think it’s a punishment from the ancestors for selling out our culture to Western values.’ (And that is a conservative traditional discourse, totally opposed to the bio-medical one, and not as uncommon as one might imagine).

So what are the implications of us, here, today?

First, there’s the question of who is at the table. Our population and development network has academics, medics, people from development agencies and government departments, ordained and lay, practitioners and media. From the standpoint of our question today, if only a single discourse is available there’s little point in the encounter.

Second, we should be vigilant in spotting where one dominant, powerful discourse threatens to overtake and colonise – as Pope Francis implies when he suggests that the ‘technocratic paradigm’ has colonised minds, shaped discourses, dictated what it’s possible to think and say.

Third, discourses are not free-floating. They serve systems of power. Just who, for example, benefits from a world-order driven by technology and the consumption of resources? Next time you hear somebody imposing on others a view they don’t necessarily share, just ask yourself whose interests are being served.

Fourth, we should be cautious about scoring points, winning arguments, or ‘having the last word’. Rowan Williams spends the whole of the first chapter of On Christian Theology talking about theological integrity. A statement that’s not open to response, he says, does not have theological integrity. He reminds us of the words of Augustine of Hippo:

“Whoever thinks that in this mortal life one may […] possess the unclouded light of changeless truth, understands neither what he seeks, nor who he is who seeks it" (De cons. evang. IV, x, 20)

Mercy: human and divine

So, that brings us back to our question: in the face of the globalisation of indifference, is there still a place for mercy?

I was reflecting on this the other morning, my eyes resting on the Vladimir icon, which I love. The mother and child embody wholeness and love, mutuality and peace. Mercy, even. But wait a bit. A young girl gets pregnant in a morally conservative culture, under a nervous and violent regime that’s surviving uneasily under military occupation. From the beginning, the child is seen as – to say the least – strange. This woman’s story involves migration and marginalisation, cruelty and political intrigue, culminating in her son’s hideous death, and her own uncertain future in a culture where widows are outcasts, non-people. She doesn’t speak much. But we hear her conversation with the angel, at the Annunciation. We hear her in dialogue with her cousin, Elizabeth (though, in those pre-Facebook days it’s a mystery who leaked its text of the Magnificat). We hear her telling off the boy Jesus for staying behind in Jerusalem (a response strikes a chord with any parent whose child has been temporarily lost); and we hear the enigmatic exchange about wine, at the wedding feast in Cana.

I’m not a mariologist, as many of you are. But I find the idea of the Mother of God as an icon of mercy to be a powerful one. I would want to resist popular images of Mary which have been watered down, spiritualised, deprived of their radical power: just as I would argue against popular understandings of mercy. Because Mary is tough: she has to be. Mary is a survivor. She is the theotokos, the one who carried God. In dialogue within the person of Mary are the two most powerful discourses in creation: the divine and the human. In her, divine mercy becomes human mercy, and human mercy (complex and ambiguous as it is) becomes divine.

That’s not a cosy option. As Mary found, mercy isn’t something that just comes plopping down out of the sky and making all things well. As aged Simeon predicted, ‘to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed, a sword will pierce even your own soul--’ (Lk 2:35)

So saying ‘no’ to the globalisation of indifference means saying ‘no’ to simple solutions, ‘no’ to facile optimism, ‘no’ to mythologies designed to conceal the truth, ‘no’ to easy answers, and ‘no’ to the lies that tell us all is well when all is patently NOT well. It means identifying friends and honouring their truth. It means creating safe spaces for honest dialogue, and not being afraid of ‘the other’. And if I were at home in discourses of popular piety, I would say that Mary must have a special place in her heart for those who have the courage to enter those troubled waters.

Gillian Paterson


Ultima modifica Lunedì 04 Aprile 2016 21:20
Fausto Ferrari

Fausto Ferrari

Religioso Marista
Area Formazione ed Area Ecumene; Rubriche Dialoghi, Conoscere l'Ebraismo, Schegge, Input

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