EMBRACING THE PAINFUL TASK OF DECONSTRUCTING SLAVERY
Insights from the New Cosmology,
New Physics and the Historical Jesus
Yago Abeledo in conversation with Diarmuid O'Murchu
Diarmuid O'Murchu, a member of the Sacred Heart Missionary Order, and a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin Ireland, is a social psychologist most of whose working life has been in social ministry, predominantly in London, UK. In that capacity he has worked as a couple's counsellor, in bereavement work, AIDS-HIV counselling, and laterally with homeless people and refugees. As a workshop leader and group facilitator he has worked in Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, The Philippines, Thailand, India, Peru and in several African countries, facilitating programmes on Adult Faith Development. His best known books include Quantum Theology (1996 - revised in 2004), Ancestral Grace (2008), Jesus in the Power of Poetry (2009), Christianity's Dangerous Memory (2011), In the Beginning was the Spirit (2012), and God in the Midst of Change (2013). His Website: www.diarmuid13.com
Yago: Diarmuid, this interview is in the context of the 125th Anniversary Celebration of Charles Lavigerie's Anti-Slavery campaign. We are invited to reflect on today's modern slavery. According to the statistics there are about 27 million people being "officially" enslaved nowadays. Here we are talking about human trafficking, forced labour etc. After many years journeying in the Global South, and specially in the African continent, this looks to me like the tip of an iceberg. It seems to me that today's slavery affects hundreds of millions of human beings struggling to have their basic needs met. Also, according to my perception, there exists a huge unnamed subconscious reality that supports this unjust and inhuman system of enslavement. This blog aims at embracing the giant wound (modern slavery) in the here and now.
Still as Walter Brueggemann points out, as quoted in your book "Christianity's Dangerous Memory", embracing is the culmination of a process which involves "confrontation with the numbness of death, recognizing and naming that which has outlived its usefulness, grieving its loss, ritualizing the letting go, and eventually laying the dead to rest." In other words, "to criticize in order to energize." You invite us to embrace the onerous and painful task of deconstruction. Could you help us to understand in a deeper way today's powers of domination and what supports modern slavery in a more subconscious level?
Diarmuid: They are several possible starting points on this topic. I will start around 500 years before the time of Jesus with the emergence of classical Greek philosophy, particularly the thinking of Plato and Aristotle. They took very much for granted a patriarchal worldview in which God is considered to be a ruling king, governing from above the sky, and ruling downward through the King on earth. "Patriarchal" is a word with several meanings, but if one keeps in mind the Greek background you grasp the essential nature of that paradigm. For that system to work effectively various categories of people became side-lined into what one could broadly call slavery.
Yago: In your last book "In the beginning was the Spirit" you wrote about the need to evaluate afresh the fundamental issue of personal identity. You say that "We are defined by the web of life... humans are begotten out of the creative vacuum. We don't come into the world; we come out of it." On the contrary, the anthropocentric and patriarchal view of reality has somehow brought us to a wrong perception of who we really are. What is for you the main area of concern that urgently needs to be tackled related to our real identity as human beings?
Diarmuid: Again, I trace the issue back to Aristotle. For Aristotle the human person is identified as the autonomous, independent, rational. Aristotle put huge emphasis on the way we use our reason, and on the fact that we stand apart from creation. Prior to the age of reason, let's call it, humans were viewed as being enmeshed within creation itself and therefore to become authentically human they needed to stand over against the natural world so that they could have a unique identity as human persons. That's the understanding of the human person adopted by Aristotle and by the classical Greek philosophy. Which today is completely taken for granted across most of the world, except of course by our indigenous peoples, who never have really bought into that. And it is widely used in our education systems all over the modern world.
The same understanding of the human person was used in the Church councils of Chalcedon and Nicea, where the Christological doctrines were defined. It was that Aristotelian understanding of the human person that prevailed. Now the alternative which I suppose is more visible today, is particularly in those African spiritual cultures where they use the concept of Ubuntu (I am because we are). But certainly it is a shift in consciousness today, moving away from that of the human as a fierce competitor, over against everything else, reaping havoc not nearly on the human family but indeed on the planet itself.
For me, the relational understanding is summarized in the statement: "I am at all times the sum of my relationships, and that's what constitutes my identity." That is what Africans mean by the concept of the Ubuntu. Moreover, our web of relationships is not about other human persons, it is about the entire web of life, how I relate with the animal kingdom, the plant world, the living earth itself, and also the cosmos. That web of relationships is very vast, it's very complex, and it's very deep. But it's not just about persons.
Already back in 1979, an American philosopher and historian, Theodore Roszak, wrote a book called Person/Planet. He reiterates the same central point: "we cannot develop our authentic way of being human without simultaneously developing more authentic ways of how we relate with the planet itself. In my recent book, Christianity's Dangerous Memory, I devote a whole chapter to this crucial issue, indicating that the historical Jesus adopted, not the Aristotelian understanding of the human person (which the Church takes for granted), but rather a way of being human much closer to the notion of the Ubuntu. The historical Jesus departed significantly from Aristotle, adopting instead an understanding of our humanity with a strong relational significance.
Yago: You have just shared about the importance of expanding our self-identity: pointing out that we are a species in relation, not only to humans but also to the web of life and to the whole cosmos. Quantum Physics and String Theory are revealing the very grounds of reality, showing that in fact we are all radically interconnected, that we are all one, that, in fact, there is nothing that is "out there," that the ground of reality in a creative vacuum, and that energy is the basic stuff of the universe. Now, what is the contribution of New Physics and New Cosmology towards this understanding of who we are as human beings?
Diarmuid: In a sense you have answered the question yourself, there is one central feature and the earlier cosmology, what sometimes is referred to as mechanistic science, put a lot of emphasis on the fact that everything is made of atoms, isolated single bits if you like. The philosophy behind that is described as: "the whole equals the sum of the parts," whereas in the new physics we embrace a vision of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. We encounter the same underlying vision in quantum theory, and in more recent theories like entanglement, string theory and a range of others. In this alternative view, everything is interconnected, everything is interrelated, nothing makes sense in isolation, and we cannot understand any individual atom, molecule, cell, or whatever it may be, without being aware - and exploring - how it is interconnected with the whole range of other things.
One of the most recent break-throughs is in the field of brain science itself. So far we have understood the brain to function basically on the basis of neurons, and if you take any standard text book on the neurology of the brain, they talk about the neurons "firing," in other words, the electrical impact going on within the neurons which is what they thought throughout the 20th century, explained the main reasons behind the activity within the brain and its impact on daily behaviour. But nowadays there is a very rapid and substantial movement towards talking about the "glia cells," and what is fascinating about these cells is that the glia specialize in interconnection across the entire brain. It is now in our thought that the "glia cells" rather than the neurons, are responsible for everything that our brain does.
When brain scientists examined the brain of Albert Einstein after his death - hoping to find evidence for his ingenious nature - they discovered three times more "glia cells" in his brain than in the average brain. His creativity may be related to the power of his glia cells rather than any rare neuronal activity. It seems that the human brain is a mirror of the cosmic brain, or the planetary brain. Once more, it is the web of relationships that defines, empowers, makes possible, everything we do rather than isolated atoms bumping off each other.
Yago: In the fascinating analogy you have just mentioned of the human brain mirroring that of the cosmic brain and the planetary brain, which indicates the reality of living in a fractal universe, giving this fact, how does this contribute towards the understanding of who we are, and also toward a better understanding of the causes of slavery?
Diarmuid: It highlights the central importance of relationality, as I emphasize above. Everything in creation, from the cosmic to the subatomic, is programmed for relationship, for a mode of interacting and interconnecting that is not oppositional or adversarial, but rather one that seeks out connection for richer interaction. Slavery is the opposite of all that. The relationships within a slavery context are imbalanced, uneven, unjust, programmed for the elimination of the other rather than for their growth or flourishing.
Yago: In the context of New Cosmology I am particularly interested on the concept of the field, specially the way is presented in the book of Judy Cannato "Field of Compassion." Could you explain how this notion of "field of compassion" contributes to a world without rigid and violent social structures?
Diarmuid: Yes, the concept of the field, which is taken of course from physics, and the field is based on a configuration, through which empowering relationships can happen; that is basically what it means. So in other words, it is a challenge to the classical mechanistic sciences which claim that everything is random, isolated, and that progress happens through things crashing into each other, depicting a rather violent understanding of nature and creation. The field concept denotes cooperation, inter-relationship, with evolution leading creation in a direction programmed for deeper relationship, which in turn will bring about deeper empowerment.
So I am back to the language of the paradigms, drawing an important distinction between the "mechanistic" paradigm and the "holistic" one. So, the concept of field is very much a holistic paradigm and it connects with many of the things we have already talked about in this interview, particularly that central emphasis that it is through more empowering relationships that life flourishes and is through empowering relationships evolution thrives at all times.
Yago: In the line of "field theory" there are also two very enriching concepts from today's new cosmology that can aid in our strategy to deconstruct slavery: these are the "holographic universe" and "non-locality." How can you explain these two phenomena?
Diarmuid: The holographic universe in practice is very closely related to the field theory. And it is also very closely related to the principle that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. An entering here also is the element of surprise. It is often when we think we have a very definite plan worked out, that life may surprise us with other elements that we haven't even thought about. To understand the holographic principle, of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, we can take an example from modern medicine. If I go to a doctor with a pain in my right-hand side, the doctor will focus on where the pain is and examine the specific area; if he needs an x-ray, it is done on that part, and if surgery is required, it is performed on the specific part. The focus is on the faulty part, following the principle that the whole equals the sum of the parts. Now, if I go to an alternative person like an acupuncturist or an herbalist, the focus will be very different. After a lengthy interview, based on a range of questions regarding my general behaviour, relationships, spirituality, diet, etc., the practitioner reaches a conclusion viewing the pain in my side a symptom of something wrong in the totality of my being. I may be advised to look afresh at my diet, my relationships, or my spirituality, and when I attend to the greater whole of my being, surprisingly things can change for the better, even resolving the pain in my side. In the second example, the practitioner is following the principle of: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the outcome can be significantly different. On the larger scale, we can link the holographic view with the concept of non-locality, both being expressions of field-theory.
Described metaphorically, non-locality is sometimes known as the butterfly effect, whereby the flapping of a butterfly's wings off the coast of New York may impact significantly on the course of a tornado off the coast of China. It is a rather poetic, metaphorical way of saying that everything in our universe is intimately connected, and even our way of thinking, our secret thoughts, are probably not that secret at all, because thought is a form of an energy, and the thoughts I have will flow out into the wider universe, and will impact on others for better or for worse.
Non-locality challenges us as individuals to be very consciously aware of what we are doing, of what we are choosing to give energy to, because that is likely to have an impact far beyond our immediate context.
Yago: In the light of the new physics and new cosmology, how can you help us to better comprehend how slavery functions and how it expands beyond the tangible. In which dimension these terms that you have just spoken of (fractals, field theory, holographic Universe and non-locality) can help us in the process of breaking down the enslavement from a mechanistic and anthropocentric world?
Diarmuid: Slavery, like other forms of oppression, is construed on a linear, top-down flow, with all the power invested on the one at the top, and imposed on the ones at the base, using a selected few in-between, to carry out the wishes of the imperial regime. In terms of the earth and cosmic creation, it makes no sense whatsoever. It is a purely anthropocentric way of doing things, itself based on a deeply flawed understanding of the human person (as highlighted above). Fractals, field theory, holography, non-locality, all highlight complex and diverse ways of inter-relating, with no one force controlling everything else. In all these cases, we are looking at the self-organizing universe, guided, rather than governed, by a deep inner wisdom. Which seeks the mutual flourishing of everything - through a structure of relational dynamics.
Yago: Africa is very much present in your writings. Previously you mentioned about the contribution of African Spiritual cultures with the term "Ubuntu", "I am because we are," which expresses the core of who we are - beings in relation. In one of your most recent books you talk about Africa being the scapegoat of today's humanity, and how Africa bears witness to some of the most destructive deviations, observable in the relational web of life. You said that, tragically, Africa is the part of our planet, and the aspect of our ancient human story, consistently condemned to negligence and oversight. Africa, more than anywhere else on earth, bears the scars of "man's inhumanity to man." Where is the background to this perception of enslavement? How is it related to our own inner enslavement as beings, uprooted from creation?
Diarmuid: Well, the first thing I must confess that I do have a particular affection for Africa. I never worked there on the long term, but I have made several short visits. My primary interest in Africa, which I spell out in great detail in my book Ancestral Grace, is that Africa is the birthplace of the human race. Africa is where our human story originates and from there we spread all over the planet. And our entire human story, which again has been subjugated by the controlling drive of our patriarchal dominant culture, is one of 7,000,000 years. Up till about 1960 it was assumed that the human race was no more than maybe 10,000 years old.
Louis and MaryLeakey shocked even the scholarly world when they stretched the date of our origins to 2,000,000 years (in the early 1960s). Thus began the new wave of research that led to the date of 7,000,000 confirmed in 2007. And most of that story is directly linked to the African continent.
With that background information, I often remind audiences that Africa is our collective home as a human species. Every human being has an innate tendency to look after their home. Home is a very special place for all of us. So we like to keep the home nice, we like to beautified it and look after it in a special way. As a species Africa is our primary home and always will be. At the present moment because of the exploitation of transnational corporations, and negative globalization, we are reaping havoc on our collective homestead. We are being incredibly destructive and reckless in the way we are treating our home.
All of us, not only the people of Africa have a very serious obligation to try and address the issue of getting our home into a better repair. Now, that is not going to happen obviously until people wake up and realize the significance of Africa in our great story. And sadly there are very few branches of education today which are alerting people to that. My hope is that in due course more and more people will become aware of it. The pain and suffering endured by humans all over the planet may in part (perhaps in large part) be due to the plight of our homestead amid so much destruction and wanton suffering.Justice is a central consideration in this matter. Much of the pain and destruction in Africa can be traced to the unfinished business of colonialism in the past, and negative globalization at the present time. These issues need to be addressed in the short term; my interest, however, is more about the long term, the need to reclaim our African home, and begin afresh with a radical different set of values and vision in our relationship with Africa: politically, economically, historically and spiritually.
Yago: In your last book you add another sense of urgency needed in the African context. You write that: "while, undoubtedly, Western colonization has contributed to this tragic state of affairs, there is a shadow dimension to African communality (internalized oppression in another guise) that needs urgent attention and thorough reevaluation." Could you elaborate on this point?
Diarmuid: Yes, let's take the example of Zimbabwe. After its initial freedom from British colonialism, Robert Mugabe became the champion of his own people. And the champion of the new freedom, the new development and the new hope for the country. And probably still using a number of methods left behind by the British but at least also doing so with a sense of autonomy. Then gradually - and largely unaware, I presume, he gradually began doing the very things that the colonial oppressors had been doing when they were colonizing the country. With a good intention to reclaim land for his own people, he ended up bolstering his own power position, supported heavily by the army of this day. He began oppressing not only the white people but his own black people as well. So sadly he started carrying out on them the very things that British colonizers carried out on the original African people when they invaded Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), and a range of other countries.The phenomenon we are exposing here is known as "internalized oppression". We can take as another example the one time British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher who ruled as the infamous iron lady. She ruled with a sense of patriarchal dominance much more characteristic of outstanding male rulers. She has so internalized a masculine way of doing things that her feminine qualities were almost totally subjugated.
So, these two examples (Robert Mugabe and Margaret Thatcher) illustrate how easily any of us can get trapped in that internalized oppression, unless we are very consciously aware, and sensitively listening to people around us seeking to alert us to the power and glory we are accumulating to our own advantage, and to the destruction of the very people and culture we are meant to be serving.
Yago: Again, in your latest book, "In the Beginning was the Spirit," you dedicate a whole chapter to the "Spirit of Africa." You mentioned that the role of the Great Spirit in African religions seems a good deal more complex than elsewhere on the planet. The Great Spirit is clouded by invasive patriarchal domination. Still, what is the contribution of the African Traditional Religions towards this major shift in our consciousness, that humanity must undergo in order to re-member our true home?
Diarmuid: Well, that question relates to a number of things. For example, it relates particularly to our image and our understanding of God, because particularly in the monotheistic religions, God is often described as an anthropocentric kind of projection. God is the human being inflated in a big way if you like. But that inflation of the human concept in all the major religions is a male, king like, royal, patriarchal figure. Now, when you look at indigenous peoples around the world, and this includes several of the natives indigenous African religions, they talk a lot about the Great Spirit. The Great Spirit is very vast and also very intimate. The Great Spirit is not a personal force in the way that we understand person, which we have already touched upon in this interview. It is transpersonal rather than impersonal. And these are important distinctions.
When something sounds not quite personal to a lot of people, we assume it is impersonal, in other words we get stuck again in dualism. Now the way to bridge that dualism is to explore the concept of the transpersonal, an idea borrowed from both anthropology and psychology. And in both sciences, the transpersonal denotes the kind of person I become when I am more meaningfully related with the whole wider web of life. Once again we encounter the holographic principle, but this time articulated in more relational terms: I am at all times the sum of all my relationships, and that is what constitutes my identity. Now for the indigenous peoples, and for the native religions of Africa, the Great Spirit is embodied first and foremost in creation. And that is not pantheism; panentheism would be a better definition for it. The Great Spirit is particularly an energy source, but an energy understood as a relational dimension. In mainstream science energy is often reduced down to cells, atoms, sub-atomic particles and so forth.
But energy understood here is in the quantum physics sense of a relational force at work. And if you ask what energizes the energy that constitutes the basis of everything in creation, in my opinion the only meaningful answer is that of the Great Spirit. Again this is a wisdom that our indigenous peoples have known for thousands and thousands of years. And I think, we, in the major religions, need to wake up and learn from this vast inheritance of our historical past. The Great Spirit is very much about interconnecting, empowering, energizing. It is a very rich concept in traditional indigenous religions that we have neglected from far too long.In the African context, the notion of the Great Spirit has been seriously subverted beneath several layers of Christian evangelization. Where the notion still prevails it tends to be described in patriarchal terms, indicating a serious conflation between the idea of God as a patriarchal father-figure and the Spirit as the source of all that exists. The "source" has been converted into a patriarchal construct instead of honouring it as a cosmic energy flow enlivening and empowering all that exists.
Yago: You have just mentioned about the constant danger of getting stuck in mere dualistic perception of reality. In the chapter "The Erotic Spirit in Creation" you launch the theology of the "Holy Spirit" into new, fertile territory. One of the characteristics which you develop, is the one of the "Spirit of Nonduality."
Again you just mentioned about the need to explore the concept of transpersonal. In this line Ken Wilber is presently taking an outstanding role in a revolutionary integral approach to Life, God, the Universe and Everything. He articulates the overall evolution and developmental movement from pre-personal to personal to transpersonal where non-dualism takes place. What is the role of non-dualism in the fight against today's slavery?
Diarmuid: Again we need to acknowledge the source of this. The wide spread use of dualism comes particularly with classical Greek philosophy. It may have been there before that, but certainly thereafter it became very strong often translated as binary distinctions between matter and spirit, body and soul, earth and heaven, and so forth. Life at large is made up of both-and possibilities and not either-or divisions. In several great Asian cultures the concept of the non-dual is very much to the fore, known as Advaita, in Hinduism, and also used in Buddhism.
And when people like Ken Wilber and others talk about "integral spirituality" they are supporting the new emphasis on relationship, explored above while also seeking to build bridges between those areas of life that we have split into dualistic opposites. From the psychological point of view the other important thing to remember here is that when we split something off, and consider it an evil so to speak, very often we give it an enormous power over us. And so in psychotherapy we use the language of "befriending the shadow," in other words learning to come back to the dark side of ourselves, and to those aspects of ourselves that perhaps we don't particularly like.
So there is a quite a long history behind our tendency towards dualistic splitting and it is deeply ingrained in our Western way of seeing and thinking. And sadly because the West has had so much influence in other parts of the world, it is quite corrosive in its destructive impact on indigenous cultures and belief systems.
Yago: I believe that the integration of a non-dualistic mind is essential in order to grasp one of the most deflating impacts on our ego, the fact that we live in a self-organized Universe that operates through the endless logic of Birth-Death and Rebirth. In this line of thinking, Richard Rohr in his book "Adam's Return" writes: "Life is not about you, but you are about life, you are not your own, you are an instance of a universal, and even eternal pattern: life is living itself in you." I will appreciate your impression of this.
Diarmuid: Well, once again, one easier way to understand that rich and complex idea of a self-organized Universe is to look at the human body itself. The human body, our health and wellbeing, is heavily dependant on the phenomenon call "the immune system."
It can be described as an internal wisdom that is there in the body that is for ever knocking out dangerous or adverse effects on the body and therefore basically keeping us healthy. Now where does the body get this immune system from? In my opinion, it gets it from the planet and from the universe.
So planet earth itself has this internal kind of wisdom which science in more recent years has named as the self-organizing principle or the capacity for autopoesis. The challenge in the notion of a self-organizing universe can be gleaned when we confront the popular interpretation of the Book of Genesis, indicating that the earth and everything in creation is matter over which we humans have control and that it exists primarily for our use and benefit. In truth, however, we are not in charge, and we are not in control; creation is in control of itself! and instead of we playing these games of domination and control we need to listen more attentively to creation, learn from its processes, including the dynamic of birth-death and rebirth, and adjust our ways of behaving, so that we behave in a way that is more congruent with the creation of which we are a part. I do sometimes wonder myself if things might have to get much worst on planet earth, in terms of global warming and these other adverse effects of our time, before we really wake up to the fact that our dominating, interfering strategy is not serving ourselves or our creation well while this alternative wisdom of a self-organizing universe is what we need to begin adopting and taking much more seriously.
Yago: In this context, in your book "Evolutionary Faith" you mentioned Swimme and Berry's insightful contribution describing the great paradox of creation and destruction happening at all levels in the Universe. As you said, this is a complex and largely neglected theological topic. God's creativity is in the destruction and death as well as in the birthing of novel and emergent forms. This is a "baffling paradox" that can only be dealt with a paradoxical mind. Could you elucidate more in regard to this insight?
Diarmuid: This is a major issue for many many people because again we have been so indoctrinated into the idea that there is a fundamental flaw in creation. And only the death and the cross of Jesus can help us to save us from it.
To make a switch to the understanding and the meaning of this paradox demands a huge shift in consciousness. Swimme and Berry, in their book of the "Universe Story," describe the paradox as the recurring cycle of creation-destruction, creation-destruction, creation-destruction, with both words being of equal importance. In other words without a certain quality and quantity of destruction we cannot have a creative universe. Now the example I often use here when I am giving workshops is the example of earthquakes. And without earthquakes we will not be having this conversation today, because without earthquakes we cannot have a viable earth. Earthquakes are absolutely essential to the wellbeing of the earth. An earthquake may be described as the earth venting out its excess of energy so that the earth body can continue to function healthily and normally. If we get rid of earthquakes we are getting rid of the earth itself too. So that leaves us with the dilemma: how then do we begin to make sense of the earthquake? And that is the importance of that word "paradox."
We need to clarify the distinction between a paradox and a flaw. For me a paradox is a contradiction but it has meaning written underneath it. So for instance when Saint Paul says "It is when I am weak that I am strong" he is talking in the language of a paradox. We can't be weak and strong at the same time as we understand them in the basic English. And yet many of us know that there is a meaning in that statement because we ourselves probably at some stage have been through that experience. So that's the paradox. Creation is full of paradox and we must not confuse it with the sense of being flawed. It strikes me that there is little or no flaw anywhere in creation. Paradox, yes, but flaw, no!
How do we make sense of all this? Well, there are several interesting examples around the world. Firstly, a rather mystical example. When the tsunami of 2004 the far East, there was one small group of indigenous people who lived off the southwest coast of Thailand.
This people don't have any formal educational system. But they read the signs of nature on that morning of December 26th 2004 when they saw the sea waters away way out. They consulted their elders and the elders said these waters will come back with ferocious intent, in just few hours from now. So they gathered all of their meager belongings, they moved up into the hills. On their way up they met a group of Western tourists, some of whom ridiculed them and walked down into the eye of the storm and were killed, but a few others went up along with them, and in due course broke the news to the western media. The point behind the story which is really a parable of our time is this: those people did not battle with the paradox. They befriended the paradox, and therefore the paradox befriended them. So there is a whole spirituality, in fact is a kind of theology, within the highly destructive elements we experience both in our personal lives and in the universe we inhabit.
Yago: From an even larger perspective, in regard to slavery, patriarchy and the anthropocentric world view as part of a destructive stage in our evolutionary process, can our emerging consciousness (of the transpersonal and non-dualistic approach) be understood as a step forward in our awareness of a new creation emerging from thousands of years of enslavement?
Diarmuid: It is not emerging from the culture of slavery, it is transcending it. While historically some might try to suggest that it had to be this way as a way of moving into a more enlightened stage, this is a narrow anthropocentric way of arguing. Slavery makes no earthly or cosmic sense.
It is the development of a species that lost touch with planet Earth and with the Universe. In all probability, slavery did not exist in ancient, prehistoric times, when the Ubuntu principle prevailed (in all probability). Slavery belongs more to the era of so-called "civilization" when humans came to see themselves as separate from creation, designed to play the game of divide-and-conquer over everything in creation, including the subjugation of other human beings, to the degrading point of slavish subjection. Slavery is a human deviancy that makes no cosmic or earthy sense.
Yago: Diarmuid, in order to grasp better the reality of slavery we, so far, have journeyed through new physics and new cosmology, with reference to Africa. Now, let us move to a concrete and practical reference: the historical Jesus. Jesus' endless compassion, his parables and amazing wisdom can only be grasped from a paradoxical mind. It is from that paradoxical dimension that emerges his mission of deconstructing the political and religious oppressive system of his time. What can we learn from Jesus' original strategy in order to deal with the conscious and subconscious elements of slavery?
Diarmuid: "Set my people free" is a central aspiration of the Hebrew faith and the Christian religion. Thanks to many contemporary insights in Scripture, we are beginning to see that Jesus did not endorse in anyway any of the patriarchal culture of old, and this is illustrated vividly in his use of parable stories. Lets take the story of the good Samaritan, where the key issue seems to be ritual impurity, with the priest and the Levite walking on the other side of the road so that they don't become ritually contaminated by the guy lying on the roadside. Jesus totally identifies with the guy, and with distinctive subversive intent, employs the radical outsider (the Samaritan) to activate a process of radical freedom and inclusivity. All the parables are powerfully challenging and disturbing stories. They are stories at the service of the phenomenon in the gospels called the "Kingdom of God," which is the English translation from the Greek (the gospels were written in Greek), but Jesus spoke in Aramaic and as far as we can believe, he didn't speak in Greek. Aramaic and Greek are significantly different languages.
The basic difference being that we often judge Greek from what is written down, but since Aramaic was only a spoken language, its meaning is conveyed by sound rather than by vision. One possible translation, in fact a more likely translation, of the phrase "Kingdom of God" is the phrase "Companionship of Empowerment." Seeking out mutually-enhanced empowerment seems to have been the primary goal of the teaching and ministry of Jesus. And so every form of slavery, or any ways of living that verge on slavery, have no place in this empowering dispensation. St. Paul suggested that slaves should obey their masters; let's be in no doubt: Jesus would never have said that.
All the parables therefore are stories at the service of the "Companionship of Empowerment." Now, they are two key words in this expression. The word "empowerment" is fairly obvious, indicating that instead of power over, we must always adopt a strategy of power with. However, it is the first word that proves to be even more revolutionary and more transgressive, and that's the word "companionship." Here Jesus seems to be saying "There maybe a benign patriarchal ruler who is genuinely try to empower, but I (Jesus) am not interested in any kind of patriarchal ruler, benign or otherwise. I want the empowerment to be done through communities, through networks, through the web of relationships. With that understanding of the Kingdom of God, we can see that Jesus is totally at one with the vision of the new cosmology. And the unifying point in both scenarios is the dynamic of empowering relationships.
Yago: In practical terms, how did Jesus set about the task of deconstruction? What role was played by the "Companionship of Empowerment"?
Diarmuid: Basically, empowering people to have more self-confidence, and to be able to see the flaws in the sociological structures that kept people enslaved. So for instance, I don't think it is by accident that a lot of the parables are about workers, workers in the vineyard, or workers in their relationship with the land, the right way of relating to the land, or the wrong way of relating to it. So Jesus did not adopt political structures, nor was he a political revolutionary, in the normal sense of the word. He was much more a person who sows the seeds of empowering subversion and empowers people to begin empowering each other, thus claiming deeper rights beyond the system that often enslaves them.
Yago: In your book "Christianity's Dangerous Memory" you propose that the crucial issue in several of the miracle stories seems to be that of internalized oppression. You also mention that possession is not the result of personal sin and cannot be healed by private penance. The possession comes from relationships lived under the deceptions of unilateral power. How did Jesus deal with the culture of internalized oppression, with the systemic forces that corrupted people's inner integrity?
Diarmuid: Well let's take the story in chapter 5 of Mark's Gospel: the man that is severely demonized and is living in the tombs, culminating in the episode of the pigs rushing down the hill into the sea. In this story it is noteworthy that much of the language is of a distinctive military nature.
The word "legion" refers to a cohort of, 6,000 foot-soldiers in the Roman culture of the times. So, the entire story in all probability is about a man, who has been severely traumatized (in modern jargon: driven insane). Perhaps he witnessed his children slaughtered in front of his eyes; perhaps his land was robbed, perhaps he was severely abused. He feels totally disempowered and has lost all sense of normality. Jesus is calling him back into his sanity, and leading him through a process of helping him to see how his needs can be met. The section on the pigs, running down the hill into the sea, is probably a metaphor, for the Romans being driven out of the land into the sea so that they can go back to Rome.
In other words if we begin to use creative imagination in our interpretation of all these stories, all these miracle narratives, whether it be about people being deaf, people being dumb, people having lost their faculties, in all probability these are the results of the external oppression, which the oppressed people have internalized.
Or again, take the story of the handicapped man let down through the roof, the man who was a paralytic, you see the key focus of that story is about the forgiveness of sin. What Jesus seems to be saying is: "Get rid of your internalized oppression and your external oppression will begin to disappear also." So I consider that there are two kinds of parables in the story of Jesus.
There are parables of the word and there are parables of action. All the miracles should be seen as parables of action and I think it is a great waste of time and energy to be looking for some divine, supernatural power at work. I am not denying that it might be there, but that is not the main point of the stories. I think, the main point of the stories is much more about human transformation, systemic transformation, at the service of the "Companionship of Empowerment."
Yago: You also mention that we need a more imaginative reconstruction in order to grasp Jesus' task to bring about authentic human transformation, Jesus' preoccupation with evil forces and his clear desire to rid the world of such oppression. There are several hints in the Gospels that evil spirits represent unmet needs. You also speak of Jesus' prophetic strategy to deal with unmet needs through non-violence and empowering deliverance from within. Could you elucidate further in this regard?
Diarmuid: In the culture of the time of Jesus - which indeed will be similar to many African cultures of our time - when people suffered oppression, and more so when they internalized it, everything in the culture was blamed on the power of spirits. We evidence that in parts of Africa today when an inexplicable event or an unexpected guest may be perceived to have activated an evil spirit, and then, sometimes Africans will resort to witch doctors and other resourceful people in order to set the relationships right.
Now, I think that this is the context for several of the stories of the gospels about these evil spirits. It has nothing to do with the person being possessed, and therefore needing exorcism, but the possession needs to be seen as a form of internalized oppression. Essentially, the oppression is about unmet needs, to the point where any realization of one's authentic humanity is largely if not totally jeopardized. And the oppression in question is not just a Roman legacy; it is also fostered by the indigenous Jewish culture itself. For instance the priests of the temple made several demands, in areas of taxation and temple donations to be paid on a regular basis. These demands left many of the people very impoverished.
The story of the widow's mite is usually interpreted as that of a woman being very generous in giving her last few pennies for the upkeep of the temple, but it could also be interpreted as a parable of subversive speech in which Jesus is denouncing the extortionist mentality of the temple system that was prepared to rob a poor widow of her last few dimes. In other words, Jesus is highlighting the oppression of the Jewish culture itself along with the extortion and exploitation that prevailed in the name of a religion that had essentially become corrupt. Viewing these spirit-related miracles as stories of unmet needs roots the unfolding dynamic on more solid ground, and clarifies further the profound depths of the phrase, "the Companionship of Empowerment."
Yago: You mention that the work of empowerment is through compassion, vulnerability, weakness, mistakes, and sinfulness, not in spite of them. How did Jesus exemplify this amazing strategy dealing with the oppressive structures of his time?
Diarmuid: One of the things I highlight in my book, Christianity's Dangerous Memory is how Jesus reversed and transformed the Greek Aristotelian expectation of God as the ideal human being who had to be perfect, must never make a mistake, has to be omnipotent and all knowing. When we look at the Gospel evidence, one thing that is fairly obvious to the more perceptive reader is that Jesus makes mistakes. Initially, that looks quite shocking to a lot of Christians.
A pertinent example is the scene of the Syro-phoenician woman, in which he actually calls her a dog, which was a nickname for the Gentiles, a clear case of Jesus making a mistake. Another one is the statement: "You won't have gone round the towns of Israel till the Son of Man appears in glory." Jesus did expect some dramatic end to the world of his day. So again he was mistaken. Now, the Christological doctrines we describe Jesus being fully divine and fully human. If you or I never make mistakes then we are not "fully human." In order to be human one has to commit mistakes. So, this gives us a whole new insight into the personality and the person of Jesus and also to the vulnerabilities of Jesus. We come to realize that our vulnerabilities are an inherent dimension of that fullness of humanity to which incarnation calls us all as a Christian people.
Yago: Charles Lavigerie, in the context of the Anti-Slavery Campaign proclaimed that "few people, too few people have the ultimate vocation: humanity." You also quote Walter Winks saying: "Divinity is fully realized humanity. The goal of life then is not to become something we're not - divine - but to become what we truly are - human." How does Jesus invite us to be fully human?
Diarmuid: Yes, you are quoting from his book, "The Human Being." Where he uses a slightly different approach from what I do, but I very much concur with his ideas that there is within the historical Jesus, for us Christians, a pattern, a sort of a template, of what a fuller human life can be about. But it is not about somebody becoming perfect, it is about somebody becoming whole. And that wholeness has to be able to endure pain, suffering, vulnerability. It has to be able to include light as well as shadow; in other words, this idea of perfectionism is quite misleading. Wholeness embraces vulnerability; it does not deny it.
Yago: Diarmuid, we are concluding our interview, but before we end I would like to get your insights on how today's peacebuilder practitioner is challenged in the middle of enslavement. What would be the qualities required as part of the practitioner's toolkit?
Diarmuid: The ones that spring immediately to mind are: I think we all have to be much more open and receptive to the emerging wisdom of our time. There is something very dramatic, and in my opinion, very wholesome, emerging in the evolutionary developments of our time. And there is also a great deal of paradox, because the more aware we are becoming of potentialities, the more aware we also become of the terrible, destructive things, that are happening all around us. So the two things are there, but certainly, yes, we need to be more open to the awareness. Secondly, we need new wisdom to interpret what it is actually happening, because the inherited wisdom that many of us have got from our education, from our religions, from our politics, that wisdom is not serving us very well and it won't serve us well for the foreseeable future. We need a more holistic wisdom capable of embracing of the bigger picture of reality that confronts us now on a daily basis.
And thirdly, we need structures to facilitate a better use of the new wisdom I refer to. We need forums for much deeper dialogue. And one word for those forums today is "networking." It is through our participation in networks that we stand the best chance if being able to discern new ways of seeing and new ways of acting that will support rather than undermine the evolutionary thrust of our time.
Yago: And finally, what would you see as basic requirements of the peacebuilder practitioner living in conflictual situations?
Diarmuid: For such a practitioner, I would propose three strategies to aid one's effort at peace-building.
Firstly, she needs to cultivate an integral sense of being at peace with oneself. Too many people, particularly in the political world, claim to be working for peace, when several of their other activities are actually promoting violence in the world.Secondly we need to chose soul-mates that will animate, support, and challenge us in our various endeavours as peacemakers.Thirdly, in conflictual situations, we need to be aware of some creative resources around conflict-management, and restorative justice. These can be immensely empowering in the onerous task of trying to realize peace in the midst of conflict.Finally, from a Christian point of view, keep a clear and strong focus on the Companionship of Empowerment. For the Christian that has to be the primary motivating force.
Yago: Diarmuid, thank you very much for sharing your expansive mind and heart with all of us. It is a great contribution to the general goal of today's modern Anti-Slavery Campaign; and also to this blog that aims at breathing forgiveness, as we deconstruct and finally embrace the giant wound in the here and now.
Diarmuid: Thank you!