Saturday, November 17, 2012


After reflecting on indvidual psalms of lament last week, I've been studying the communal laments this week. What do you think of this passage?
Marlboro Man - the iconic loner 
It is probably easiest for us to resonate with these personal psalms of lament. Partly that is because they predominate in the Psalter and we are more familiar with them, even if we do not use them easily. But the other reason is that the category of the personal, even psychological, has become our mode of experiencing reality. We have, at the same time, experienced a loss of public awareness and public imagination. So while the personal laments may parallel experiences of our own, the loss of public experience means we have little experiential counterpart to the communal events. Given our privatistic inclination, we do not often think about public disasters as concerns for prayer life. If we do, we treat them as somehow a lesser item. We have nearly lost our capacity to think theologically about public issues and public problems. Even more, we have lost our capacity to practice prayers in relationship to public events. (Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, 1984, p. 67)

I’ve been reflecting on this passage, and have found that some of Brueggemann’s ideas really ring true. For example, “the category of the personal, even psychological, has become our mode of experiencing reality.” This blog that you are reading is testimony to the truth of this, isn’t it?

The next sentence seems to make sense also: “We have, at the same time, experienced a loss of public awareness and public imagination.” Ever since it resumed publishing after the storm, the Newark Star-Ledger has filled its front pages with human interest stories of people’s personal tragedies and others' personal heroism and generosity. I guess that the pattern is this: When a large-scale tragedy strikes, a lot of Americans run toward eachother to help, but as soon as the tragedy abates, everyone goes back to his or her private-consciousness-centered way of being. The “outpouring of assistance to the victims” shown in the news is through individuals acting pretty much on their own or in small groups such as the members of the Woodbridge Police Department. I don’t think I’m making a value judgment, but just noting that it seems to exemplify the contention that we tend experience things privately and personally, and respond even to mass tragedies the same way.


In a discussion with my sophomore religion students this week, many of them seemed baffled by my suggestion that there was something morally amiss with a hotel manager’s quadrupling the cost of a room to take advantage of the happy fact that there were people in the vicinity whose homes had been destroyed and thus had nowhere to turn. Many of the kids had no sense of a possible responsibility to the community or an opportunity to help others in trouble. Some of them are from religious families and are genuinely good, God-fearing young people. But, as a fellow monk explained later, “They’ve been brought up in our culture.” If you see an opportunity to make money, you grab it. We’ve been trained to look for those opportunities – very personal and private ones. Our culture doesn’t form us with the mindset of "If you see an opportunity to help a neighbor, you grab it."


East Orange NJ City Hall
I probably mentioned the following observation before, but it bears repeating here. Notice the eloquent statement made by the architecture of some of our recent public buildings such as city halls or libraries. In older towns a lot of money and careful planning went into the designing and building of a city hall. The community was making a statement: People’s modest individual houses were supposed to pale in comparison with the community's public buildings. Now take a ride into the newer suburbs and check out the town hall. The wealthier the town and the larger its “McMansions,” the smaller will be its public buildings. The town hall might even be a single-story cinderblock affair whose design blends perfectly with the Wendy’s’ next door. Of course there are other factors such as population density that enter in, and I’m not saying the situation is "bad,"but just that it seems to fit with the quotation from Brueggemann: “the category of the personal, even psychological, has become our mode of experiencing reality. We have, at the same time, experienced a loss of public awareness and public imagination.”

So if a town has experienced a catastrophe, each individual in the town can choose to respond in whatever way he or she wants. They are not “in this together” – if they were, then my students would have been outraged that the gas station owner on the corner would double his prices when he saw that he could profit from the misery of his neighbors. As things stand presently he's morally entitled to prey on his neighbors for as long as he can get away with it.

So much for my private psychological musings. Time to go down to community mass.

1 comment:

  1. Very well put. It used to be that churches were the highest buildings in a town, so that anyone traveling would see it first. It has been my experience in events which have affected the community act to make the smoke clear and bring us together. The first time I felt this sense of community surrounding an event was when the Space Shuttle exploded during its ascent. I was in high school at the time and I remember having a talk with someone - the first time too - about God. He was a born again Christian and I was at the beginnings of being a lapsed Catholic. He seemed to want to make the event into something spiritually significant. I disagreed with him and said that if it were to be seen in that light, then, well, it was God's fault. Besides that incident. there seemed to be a sense of national mourning. The second time was for the verdict at the OJ Simpson trial. I was out of college by then and working in a law firm downtown. We watched the verdict in a conference room that looked out above Broadway. Image the streets of Broadway in downtown NYC on a weekday afternoon empty. Empty. No cabs or pedestrians. I felt this tremendous sense of ambivalence in the room and felt that during that whole period. I also recall blackouts and of court 9/11. In those two last incidents, there WAS a sense of community (not for vengeance in the latter one, but of sticking together. Concerning an incident which I recalled listening to on the radio during a blackout of some sort, people gathered together at night throughout the city for a candlelit night on the steps of museums in the cool summer night air. Another story was of an immigrant pedestrian directing traffic in Times Square and exclaiming how much he loved this country. During Sandy, residents in my building all gathered together in the lobby and in the hallways and actually spoke to one another. I for one could not keep my mind off the thought of people in other parts of the state who were in real need and I felt somewhat conflicted about being with my family and just wanting to help. No specifics about who I should be helping or how I could help them. They occupied my mind as much as me being concerned about my son and wife. I wound up not caring about all the things that I took for granted which heat and electricity bring. Not even food. These incidents are few and far between, and perhaps we should act more like a community. I don't quite agree with Brueggeman saying that we have lost a sense of public awareness and public imagination. I think it is latent in us. Asleep. Suppressed even, but it is still there. Just as that image and likeness of whom we are made in is still within us. Catastrophe is the only way for it to be brought out. I think people have always been this way, except that we are much less likely to encounter catastrophe in our lives. Should we then, be open to it? Should we dismantle all the obstacles to let the flood in? I think Jesus wants us to be, right?