Thursday, November 10, 2005

The City of God

Just started reading St. Augustine's "The City of God". At this point I know little- that it is nearly 1600 years old, that it was written as a logical defense and explanation of the Christian point of view, and that it has been a foundation, like Plato and Aristotle, for much of the thinking that has followed it and shaped our culture.

Barely into it and two things have struck me as particularly well done.

Augustine asks the ancient question of why bad things happen to good people. Part of his reasoning is a sophistry- if some punishment/reward isn't withheld until final judgment, faith in god would be unnecessary. But then he says something great- that when events and people collide it is the person, not the event, that makes it a good or bad thing.

His example was olives that under pressure are purified into oil, whereas the olive leaf that falls into the same press and is subject to the same forces is mangled. You see this in life every day. Two people lose a loved one and one becomes helpless, the other feels grief fully and moves on, caring about other people, becoming wiser and stronger.

Any potentially negative event is treated like this. Some decide that it is proof of their disadvantage and inability to succeed, some learn and grow. The ones who learn will always be stronger and wiser. The ones who don't may pretend to be, but it is cynicism, fear disguised as world-weariness.

Here's the training question: Can you teach the ones who don't do this naturally to become the strong? I worry because I doubt anyone consciously chooses to reject their own experience. In other words, even the most cynical professional loser, one who has never held a job or kept a relationship going and keeps friends only by dint of shared addictions, this person thinks that he IS growing and learning. Or does he?

The second Augustinian moment for me was when he discussed the rebuke. When is it okay to tell someone else that he is wrong? That he is behaving badly? It's a powerful expectation in our society that you should "mind your own business". We have been heavily indoctrinated that bad is only bad from one point of view and it is unAmerican to interfere with another's choice... but this indoctrinated reluctance to speak up, to "rebuke" has led to a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil climate that encourages and enables a huge amount of victimization.

A friend recently attended a police/community partnership meeting in California. She sent me the notes of the meeting, which was all about getting the officers to become closer to the community and understand the community and be sensitive to the opinions and feelings of the community. There was never anything about the community coming to understand the needs of the officers. If people really want crime to go down in high-crime areas it will be the people who live there, not the police, that will make it happen. The citizens must make it clear that crime is not tolerated, they must stand up and say "That's wrong." And then they must press charges and then they must testify... and do so proudly. They must rebuke.

When there is less stigma attached to lying to provide an alibi for a serial rapist than for being seen to talk to the police, there is a problem that goes very deep, and it is not a problem that police can or should fix.

So Augustines rebuke should not be done in anger. It should never be withheld out of fear. It is an attempt to make things better, to give the rebuked person a chance to change and grow. Maybe they cannot see the harm. It is, as he explains it, literally an act of love.


Anonymous said...

The key. Knowledge is structured in consciousness. Awareness. Expand consciousness and all the understanding, positive emotional connectedness and skills will come. The second aspect to this is that expansion is blissful - and happy people see happy in things and are willing to learn postive lessons from negative events. Become Aware. Become. Be.

Rory said...

The key. And it has been pointed out by Buddhist monks and Christian saints and warriors and moms through the ages. Be.