So far in these reflections I have tried to integrate our contemplative responses to the world around us as we live with openness to our real experience. I have tried to bring these together by emphasizing that:
The life of the Trinity is the web of all of creation.
We aren’t just dealing with people or even just with the environment. It is God’s life that we cherish. God lives in the goodness and beauty of the world.
We have a two-fold response to our awareness of God’s presence
When we are aware of God’s loving presence in our lives creating goodness and beauty, we dance in wonder and glory. And when the web of God’s life in creation is broken or torn, it is cause for sorrow and weeping.
We respond to the awareness of God’s presence both within the personal and the structural levels in which we live.
At both the individual level and the systemic level, it is the same presence of God that we are paying attention to. This awareness – that it is our response to God’s presence – changes the perspective immensely.
It is not simply a matter of preference or natural inclination to see the good or the problems whether we see beauty or brokenness. Nor is it a matter of being a big picture person or someone who likes the intimacy of small things whether we pay attention to the structural or the personal. We are paying attention to God at both levels. It is God’s presence, revealed in beauty or defaced in evil that we care about.
We can learn to be strong in the face of our fears so that we stay present to the presence of God whether it is in rejoicing or in grieving.
This is our contemplative practice, by God’s grace. This standing for God has nothing to do with how guilty or ineffective we might feel.
In this next reflection I would like to explore some dimensions of systemic evil. Then I will brainstorm a few ways we can live this together in an encouraging way. I will only name a few expressions because I am still in a huge learning curve with this myself. I can easily see the systemic issues, but I am gradually learning to let go of anger and cynicism and the need to actually accomplish something.
I am learning to believe that I need help from the community. I look forward to your own comments and reflections to add to what is given here. I am also learning that I can make small choices. Finally I am learning God takes pleasure in all of my desire and my small choices because I am doing it out of love.
Some Examples of Systemic Evil
First of all, there are many different ways that people have suffered because they are not part of the “in” group. It is the way the society (the system) is structured that actually creates the suffering. The class system in India, Apartheid in South Africa, and the way our own society is structured with regard to aboriginal people are obvious examples. Racial prejudice and discrimination against LGBTQ+ are examples of structural evil.
Jewish Scripture often talked about the structural discrimination that created vulnerable groups of people, eg. “widows and orphans” and “aliens” (or “strangers”). Both were without any influence or voice because they were outsiders to the power within the society.
Here’s the deal. Jewish society was structured around “inheritance.” Wealth was tied to the family and was bound up with the land (the family farm). Their land, inherited from their ancestors, was the ticket to any participation in the society. Only men could own land. Men, then, had power to help make community decisions. They could meet at the gate and talk with the elders. They had a say in how things operated.
When a man died, the widow did not inherit the land. That meant that widows and orphans lost their place in the patriarchal society and were suddenly outsiders and had no say in what happened. This stripping of their claim to an inheritance made them so vulnerable to exploitation that Torah provided for the widow to marry the man’s brother just so that she could come under some social shelter and not be vulnerable to the whims of whoever might want to take advantage of her. Pretty drastic measures if you ask me!
The same was true for “foreigners.” They were without inheritance and therefore without power. No wonder Torah was clear (Ex. 22):
“You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.
“You must not exploit a widow or an orphan. If you exploit them in any way and they cry out to me, then I will certainly hear their cry.
It is not hard to find many parallels to this in the way our present society is structured. Until recently women have been voiceless. But there are many more subtle ways in which some groups have power and some don’t. A covert but powerful evil is the existence of covenants and restrictions on the kind of house that can be built in a sub-division. This can easily be a structural way to keep some people in and some out. It is all decided at levels to which most of us have no access. But it influences how neighbourhoods are viewed and then how the people within them are treated.
The institutions within society
This kind of institutional power is known in the New Testament as “Principalities and Powers.” They are a necessary part of the structure of society as God created it (Colossians 1:16, 17). But they easily become evil and oppressive as power gets consolidated. We are dehumanized in the face of this evil.
People become a number and lose any say. This is true whether it’s the government, an educational institution like a university, health care institutions like hospitals, corporations including multinational corporations, or even religious institutions. As the institution grows it consolidates power and the individual is left without little or no influence.
This is why multinational corporations are so dangerous. Their very size consolidates power beyond any accountability. It is also why Pope Francis is trying to address this very issue right now in the Vatican. It is not simply the tragedy or injustice of one person to another. The system becomes evil in the way decisions favour the protection and preservation of the institution rather than the dignity and well-being of individuals. As contemplatives we learn to notice. Creation is torn and we weep at the way God’s presence is defaced.
Again, let me say that it is not that the institution is evil. It saves us from the chaos of individualism. But it can degenerate into terrible violent power. Scott Peck (People Of The Lie) even made a good case that the individuals, who work in institutions that have become corrupt, may be decent and caring. But, as in the Mai Lai Massacre, the institution took over. Massive damage and tragedy resulted even though the people involved were, for the most part, good people. The evil of residential schools in our history is another of these tragedies.
Creation Itself Can Become The Victim Of Systemic Violence
Finally, there is the deep weeping for the ways in which creation itself is being torn and devastated. Like the widows and orphans, creation is a vulnerable and voiceless entity. It can be exploited by those who have power, and creation has no means to stop the destruction (at least in the short term!). Really, when we think of it, creation is just as voiceless and just as vulnerable as children in human trafficking. It is completely without voice or power. Can we be as sensitized to the suffering of the one as to the suffering of the other?
Exploitation of resources and a sense of entitlement to consume whatever we want can be attributed partly to an unhealthy residual from the pioneers of this country. They saw the wilderness as vast and unending, even almost a threat. Therefore, there was little need to be caring. Garbage left somewhere or the destruction of some trees was seen as of no significance in the face of the vastness of the wilderness. They felt it was their duty to subdue the daunting challenges and provide homes and communication and transportation in this big wilderness.
But the destruction of creation is a much greater issue than that. There is also a systemic destruction of creation (I often prefer to use the beautiful term, “creation,” rather than the more prosaic “environment”). Society is structured in such a way that we destroy the land for the sake of economic profit. Or even more simply, the ways we structure our housing to occupy so much land and our driving habits that require a massive infrastructure have huge consequences for creation.
How Do We Respond?
I planted a few seeds in Part Two of these reflections. I will summarize them and try to give a few more suggestions in this section.
Some choices mentioned in the earlier reflections
These may seem small and even obvious, but they are far-reaching if we intentionally choose them and celebrate them together. It is the togetherness that is so appealing to me We can:
Face into our fears of systemic evil and learn to be present to God’s Presence in creation.
Acknowledge that God is bigger than our fears; “greater is the One in you than the one in the world.”
Even in the worst-case scenario, we can be with Jesus in our “dyings” and trust in God’s love for us there. We can learn to help each other face our fears and learn to trust.
Make a contemplative commitment, personally and together, to a life-orientation of staying present and aware in the face of both good and evil.
This is much more than expressing sorrow or even outrage over the brokenness in the web of creation that excludes people or does damage to others or to Creation itself.
We can actually take a posture that says, we are AWARE! And we say NO! Let it become a way of life to notice evil whether evil is being done to our next-door neighbour, an entire neighbourhood, or a whole section of creation.
Here are some more examples of choices that we can make
Write songs and poems and create other forms of art that keep our sensitivity alive and responsive to our world.
Wouldn’t it be fun to sing new songs when we gather – songs that inspire us to live well, to be aware, and to stand together in our love for God’s presence. While writing this I heard the news that Nelson Mandela passed away. I am inspired by how singing was both part of the protest and now part of the grief. Wouldn’t it be something to come together in some situations in our lives and sing songs together? Songs of protest and songs of hope. What might we being saying to the world and how might it be inspiring to us?!
I truly believe that part of our response, even in the darkest places, is to sing songs. This is actually not my idea. It was suggested long ago in the message of Isaiah to those who experienced the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile into Babylon. Maybe we don’t all write poems or songs, but we probably know some that others have written. What if we shared them with one another like Glen has done with some of Bruce Cockburn songs? Regularly! In a way that reminds us, and bolsters us, and gives us courage to live this contemplative presence to the Presence of God in a healthy way.
Do a visio-divina or some other kind of “divina(!)”
Perhaps in our SoulCare groups we could offer prayer experiences that help us see both the goodness and breakage in the way our society is structured. Then we could rejoice together, weep together, pray together, and maybe even make some choices together that would honour God. Maybe that would change how we live in the world.
Make a statement on our website
We could declare that we are sensitized to the love of God expressed in so many ways in our life and that we are also sensitized to the evil that creates ripping and tearing in the expression of God’s Presence among us.
Affirm principles that we believe are part of what it means to honour the life of the Trinity in our world. For example:
Consider what might be the hierarchy of your principles or values – if you had to choose one over the other. Would you want to stand for: preserving the dignity of a person or ensuring the value that each person needs to fit into society as we have structured it. I realize that situations are complex. But, when we can, would we lean toward one or the other? I believe that choosing our values is an important action for Justice.
This issue is at the very crux of assisted dying that is being debated today. When is maintaining life still a celebration of life and when does the insistence on the continuation of life lose all dignity for the sake of the structures we have created. Regardless of which side we come down on, can we at least ask the question, “how is God’s life being shown in its beauty and how is God’s life being torn?” Then, at least whether we agree or not, we can stay together as a contemplative community on the most basic levels of attending to and affirming God’s presence among us.
If we are asked to choose between economic “necessity” and the gift of creation ,can we at least ask the question, “Is this economic “necessity” a reality or is it based on fear of what might happen if we do not succumb to it?” I do not believe we can eliminate all destruction of creation, but I also believe that much of what is touted as necessity is really fear-mongering to make us believe that our economy will collapse if we challenge it in the least.
So, again, maybe we will disagree at some individual points. But can we continue to affirm together to “Stand” in the face of our world situation either personally or systemically and say YES! to beauty and goodness and NO! to evil and unnecessary destruction of creation?
I may not be saying this very well. I know that! I have fears that you will write me off. But that is precisely why I am writing this. I long for others to help clarify and inspire us so that we don’t get lost in the arguments and actually stand true with each other in the contemplative awareness of God in our lives.
Go to those who are victims of systemic discrimination and oppression and hear their stories.
Like Peter (Acts 10) we can actually go to people in their own situation and listen. I have heard stories from a number of different SoulStream partners that were at the recent Truth and Reconciliation gatherings. It would be wonderful to hear the powerful impact of that experience on the lives of our fellow-partners. It would be encouraging to know that SoulStream partners are affected by this and are “standing” in a movement to bring healing in this experience.
Well, I could probably go on, but you might start yawning. And the first law of teaching is to quit while you are still ahead! At least these are a few examples. I long for others to help expand, correct, and deepen what is here so that we can be more deeply rooted in our contemplative responses to the world.
We are SoulStream. We are a dispersed community. We are committed to a contemplative way of living. We love God and want to respond to God’s presence. And we are learning how to do that together.
Let’s raise a glass to that! “To the Giver!!”