Is watching, scrolling, and sharing the best we can do in response to yet another televised war?
I want the act of watching a war unfold on the other side of the world to feel stranger than it does. It should feel stranger than it does. But I was thirteen when the first Gulf War was beamed into our home, a graduate student when our president sent troops into Afghanistan. I drove to Radio Shack to pick up an antenna so I could watch the beginning of the second invasion of Iraq, an event that, in my memory, seemed more like the beginning of a race than the bloodletting it eventually was.
Televised and streaming war is normal now. Some of these conflicts get better ratings than others; the horrors in Ukraine have captivated us in a way that Syria or Yemen or Ethiopia never quite managed.
There was a story on our local public radio station this week about some high rises in Chicago which are being illuminated in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. It's a way of standing in solidarity, according to a couple of the building managers who were interviewed for the report. They didn't sound all that convinced that their lit-up support makes much of a difference.
What else is there to do with another war on? Today's headlines tell me that Russia took more ground while my social media feeds recycle the head-shaking stories of the feisty Ukrainian resistance. It's all so far away and, compared with my scrolling and scanning and skimming, changing some light bulbs on a skyscraper seems positively productive. Illuminated solidarity.
I'm taking a seminary class about creation theology this semester and this week our small group discussed the inherently limited nature of being human. We are interdependent with the rest of creation in a manner that contemporary life, at least in my part of the world, thoroughly obscures. The naturalist and author Aldo Leopold wrote that civilization "has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relation with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim." I wonder, is that forgetfulness partly to blame for the helplessness I feel in the face of another broadcasted war?
In Laudato Si, Pope Francis quotes the Catholic Catechism on the human dependency with our fellow creatures. “God wills the interdependence of creatures," he writes. "The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow: the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient. Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other.” There is no being human without relying completely on the biota and abiota for our very survival.
The clutter, gadgets, and middlemen which Leopold warns us about are defined by Francis as the "technocratic paradigm" through which we've come to view the world. "The specialization which belongs to technology makes it difficult to see the larger picture. The fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, and yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon, which then becomes irrelevant." We feel that we are related to those women and men dodging missiles so many miles away but the dominant paradigm keeps us from intuiting the nature of our relationship. We feel that there must be some sort of reciprocity but it's hard to say just what it is. Our formation has us assuming technological solutions to the suffering inflicted upon our creaturely kin.
In the days immediately preceding the Second Gulf War, Wendell Berry wrote that a "nation's charity must come from the heart and imagination of its people. It requires us ultimately to see the world as a community of all the creatures which, to be possessed by any one, must be shared by all." Such a perspective renounces the technocratic paradigm with its utilitarian and segregating impulses. Instead, we choose to see ourselves as cooperative participants, giving to and receiving from the earthly home we share with every other creature.
This is not an invitation to trade one abstraction for another. Leopold writes that "there is value in any experience that reminds us of our dependency on the soil-plant-animal-man food chain, and of the fundamental organization of the biota." These experiences can only be found within the very close confines of the places we inhabit. Those seeking to live within the limits of our place will, as Berry writes, show "concern for the health and longevity of its soils, forests, and watersheds, its natural and its human communities, its domestic economy, and the natural systems on which that economy inescapably depends." Are our places healthy? Do we know how to find out?
In 1964 Fannie Lou Hamer, along with eleven other activists, spent three weeks in Guinea. As the field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Hamer joined the other delegates and traveled to West Africa at the invitation of the newly independent nation's president, Ahmed Sékou Touré. In her new biography about Hamer, Keisha N. Blain writes that President Touré "hoped to provide an opportunity for young Guineans to meet with American civil rights leaders to exchange ideas and strengthen ties between both groups." Hamer's path to leadership in the Civil Rights Movement differed from many of her contemporaries, beginning in the severe poverty and racial oppression of Sunflower County, Mississippi. After years of sharecropping on a white man's plantation, Hamer threw herself into the struggle for voting rights after being fired and shot at after attempting to vote. She now found herself far from Mississippi's cotton fields, being consulted by high-ranking delegates and forging international partnerships.
Later that year, after returning from their trip, Hamer made a speech in Harlem on behalf of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In it, she linked what she had experienced in post-colonial West Africa and a lifetime in Jim Crow America. "For three hundred years, we've given them time. And I've been tired so long, so I am sick and tired of being sick and tired." Blain writes that, "for Hamer, drawing the links between the experiences of Black people in the United States and those in Africa was not simply a matter of grappling with American foreign policy. The deep connection and relationship between African Americans and Africa guided her recognition."
In these interconnected relationships, Hamer represents a vision of compassion for our global neighbors which is unencumbered by the technocratic paradigm. Far from shielding her from the struggles on the other side of the world, Hamer's roots in and commitments to her flesh-and-blood neighbors in Mississippi allowed her to see the interrelated whole.
How might we shake lose of the fragmented malaise of technocracy which has us adding wars and rumors of war to the rest of our media queue? Which has us assuming that sharing and liking are the closest to solidarity we can get? Perhaps we might begin by plunging our hands into the nearest bit of soil we can find, feeling for the reverberations of this created world of which we are but a small part. Any fruitful response to the old predictable destruction will not come from some technological miracle. It will reveal itself to those who can see the whole, who understand we belong to the whole and can imagine that wholeness in the stories and suffering of our kin.
Neighborly love cannot be mitigated through our technology, no matter what the technocratic saviors from Silicon Valley and Washington DC believe. Love is always an embodied sacrifice. It makes particular demands on limited and interdependent creatures such as ourselves, namely that we care for the diverse places and people closest to us. Only then, from the creative confines of our creatureliness, can we love our faraway neighbors.