St. Augustine’s Episcopal Parish, February 28, 2016
This week I had a conversation with a student who had two classes, back to back, in which were shown videos about the abuse and torture of prisoners by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Gharaib prison in Baghdad. Besides the gut wrenching content of the videos, the student was struck by the way in which each class dealt with the scandal. In her Justice Studies class, the students learned that the “bad apples” claim put forth by the military was false, namely that the torture and degradation of prisoners was the result of a few individual soldiers behaving badly. They learned instead to look for blame within the unjust structures and culture of power that existed in the military occupation of Iraq. In her Social Psychology class, students learned about the psychological effects of power differentials in social relationships and how quickly even “normal” people begin to exceed the reasonable use of force given the cultivation of certain conditions. They reviewed a social experiment in which undergraduates were split into “guards” and “prisoners” for a period of days and read about how quickly the students began to internalize the power dynamic of their respective roles. The experiment had to be cut short because the “guard’s” treatment of the “prisoners” came dangerously close to abuse in a matter of just a few days.
The student also shared that she was struck by how her classmates at ASU insisted upon keeping the problem “out there,” among the “other.” She felt as though the young adults in her Justice Studies class seemed blind to any connections between their citizenship in the United States, their general way of life, and the actions of the U.S. Armed Forces. In her Social Psychology class, her classmates talked about the Abu Gharaib scandal as though there is no way they would ever succumb to the social and psychological conditions that breed abusers and torturers.
Our lessons for this Third Sunday in Lent seem intent upon calling into question this very human tendency to locate problems outside of ourselves, to project them neatly onto some “other” so they don’t taint our own moral constitution. St. Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians discusses the relationship between the Church and the stories about the people of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul offers that looking at the failures of our ancestors in faith ought to engender in us a sense of humility regarding our own moral constitution. We in the present are not superior to those in the past, and we are called to listen to the sacred narrative in order to map our own inner landscape. St. Paul writes that we read these ancient stories about the missteps of generations past “so that we might not desire evil as they did,” so that we might be aware of our own untoward desires and latent capacity for evil, which can cause such harm to ourselves and others if repressed, if their existence is denied.
Our Gospel today from Luke picks up on this theme. We see Jesus challenging the attitudes and perspectives that construct the “other” in the minds of his audience. When people tell him “about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices” Jesus discerns in their words the pervasive tendency to look at what befalls others and to not see oneself in it. Jesus responds to the talk about this horrible event by breaking down the “otherness” of tragedy and injustice. Harboring a perspective of “otherness” often leads to speculative judgments, “they must have done something really bad for that to happen to them,” and moral superiority, “I’m sure glad I haven’t done something that bad.” Jesus recognizes that such a perspective numbs our conscience and blinds us to our own complicity in a given problem.
But mere complicity isn’t the answer. It’s not the goal towards which Jesus is leading us, and it’s not the place for us to land in this Lenten season. We are brought, through the Penitential Order and through our corporate Confession, to acknowledge our complicity in what’s wrong with the human condition, but we don’t wallow there in our collective guilt. We are brought to this place of repentance, this place of turning away from playing our part in what is evil, in order to be, as the absolution says, strengthened in all goodness. We are brought to the place where our projections of “otherness” are broken down, where we take up the work of mapping our own inner landscape, so that we may be empowered by the Holy Spirit to live more fully into the eternal life of God. We move from complicity in what leads to death into the transformative hope of new life.
As the student and I were ending our conversation this week, we talked about the need to process intense experiences like the one she had watching those Abu Gharaib videos. It’s easy to feel alone when others around us don’t seem to be affected by the things that deeply disturb us, when the default behavior is to project rather than to reflect. I offered to her that a fruitful place for us to turn as Episcopalians in order to process difficult experiences is to the Daily Offices of our Church: Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline. In the offices we encounter the text of Holy Scripture and the rich language of liturgical prayer, words that bear witness to the experiences of generations past and on which we can hang our feelings and lift them into the light of God’s presence.
Whether or not we make use of the Daily Offices to do so, let us, this Lent, not neglect the work of breaking down our projected illusions of “otherness.” Let us, instead, acknowledge what is amiss within ourselves so that we may be strengthened in the power of the Spirit to move ever more fully into the New Life of God’s creating, the hope we await at the dawning of Easter Day.