“You pro-test before you can at-test” Paul Ricœur, in conversation at the Taizé community.
“The removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.” Heb 12:27, NIV
“What would Jesus deconstruct?” John Caputo
It’s easy to destroy. Destruction takes a measure of anger and a short sharp shot, and it’s “over”.
The card pyramid that took 5 minutes to erect, flattened in a second. The act of courage which took many months to build up, quashed. The trust which gently overcame fear, vanquished. The slight that was cast on a families pride, avenged.
Anger, unlike limited fossil fuel, is abundant, cheap, and easy to access. Criticism might look or sound impressive, and informed, but in fact the neural pathways it traverses are like the proverbial broad road, leading to destruction. It’s pretty much habitual, to identify and defeat our “enemies”, to find and expose the flaws in another, to build a career out of that which we oppose.
However, I am not seeking to demonise either anger or protest. It’s the very act of isolating unpleasant qualities that perpetuates the problem. Anger has a message, a deconstructing and potentially very constructive message, if we can read it. In fact, if we don’t read anger, and instead banish it, it goes underground, and like radioactive material, works acts of great destabilisation over an unmappable area. Its symptoms will continue unabated, taking on grotesque forms for many half-lives.
Time is a great healer, some say, but unresolved anger left to its own devices will need to be excavated and brought into awareness, and then forgiven, for real healing to take effect, and sometimes only in future generations.
Likewise, the insecure regime will aggressively attack all expressions of anger and protest, in its deluded attempts at self preservation. But it would be a wise leader who heeded the message of the protest. That would be the starting point for change. The protest is not the sin, the protest is the symptom.
I was brought up nominally Anglican. I guess that made me a Protestant, (and I guess it contained its measure of anti-Catholic sentiment). But I’d prefer not to label myself a “protester”, without having a deeply wrought alternative to that which I protested against. I’m happy to protest, critique and deconstruct, but I will not ultimately define myself in terms of what I am against.
So protest and reaction have a very real place in any transformation, and they should be given their due. I am suspicious of processes which are too compliant, where there is too little evidence of honest hurt. I am looking for the dark presence of pain. This is not to say it has to be present as some sort of prerequisite, but on the whole it is a very exceptional situation where there is change without protest.
We need to allow, artfully, for protest to have its say, in order to develop the trust necessary to move forward. This often requires mediation, a third party who can affirm the voices in opposition to each other.
What is affirmed? Paul Ricœur takes the thought forwards:
In protest there is the word testis, witness: you pro-test before you can at-test. … Protest is still negative: you say no to no. And there you have to say yes to yes. There is thus a seesaw movement from protesting to attesting.
The basic need of all humans is to be seen, to be witnessed. The Zulu greeting, “Sawubona” means “I see you”. Before we can change, we will need to be affirmed. That requires an unconditional acceptance of the other, before any differences are negotiated.
In the baldly political sphere, this is not possible, because politics is about power. But in the spiritual arena, there is the possibility of unconditionality – giving and forgiving. I am not saying that there are not great breakthroughs in politics – it does happen – but it is largely due to goodness breaking in to the sphere of politics from beyond (and in my view will always involve forgiveness).
The self-judging question I have come to ask myself is, is this act ultimately redemptive? Do I in my protesting have a view beyond merely registering my dissatisfaction, towards another, better life, with better communication, a better vision of the world, community? Can my protest be justified by its place in a redemptive process?
And so to Ricœur’s word, “attest”. While protest can mean opposition either for or against a cause; attest is entirely positive. This is its radical nature: it seeks to affirm, in so doing shows that it has overcome at that point, the need to condemn. It points towards that which is worthy, with a worthiness that extends beyond this worlds time-bound system. To truly attest is to affirm and cleave to the “things which will remain”. And it is often done in faith, having no evidence of justice done, in faith in ultimate Justice.
I have been trying to spell out what this might mean over the last while, conscious that the dominant content of my effort is not that which I reject, but the hope of something better. A culture of spirit that effectively and proactively embraces the 21st Century, while at the same time ties back to well proven traditions.
Hebrews 12:27, in the words of The Message, are as follows:
“The phrase “one last shaking” means a thorough housecleaning, getting rid of all the historical and religious junk so that the unshakable essentials stand clear and uncluttered.”
Does our protest serve to make way for the unshakable essentials to stand clear and uncluttered?
What do we have to which we can confidently “Attest”?