Two tragedies are read out this Sunday, across the headlines of papers and the status update feeds of social media: the death of a pop singer and the terrorist attack in Norway.
It is interesting to compare my immediate reaction to both these events.
In the case of Norway massacre, I was first shocked when I heard the initial reports. But I’m desensitized to news of violence, so this registered with me in the same way that, say, some ethnic cleansing in Kyrgistan might hit me: detached, quite mild, horror.
My first assumption was that it was a probable Islamic terrorist attack. And whenever these things happen, some part of my prays that it’s someone else perpetrating the attack. (“God, please let it not be Muslims this time!”) When it’s in places like India or Pakistan or Iraq, it’s almost a given. But in Western attacks, there is always a possibility of some other group or individual — diversity breeds a diversity of murderers. So when the Spanish bombing occurred, I’m sure part of me was hoping it was Basque separatists.
Why do I feel this way? Partly out of attachment and tribal empathy for my Muslim friends and to the general immigrant populations in the West. Partly out weariness at this decade long enumeration of Muslim atrocities: I am tired of the cloud of violence hanging above the ummah of Islam, and (petty mindedly) wish it was blown to some other, more distant ummah (like Neo Nazis or the IRA, for instance).
So some distant component of me felt almost victorious — at least vindicated — as the news trickled in that the criminal was, not Muslim, but a far right extremist. Ha! And the media was so quick to assume! The political-propaganda machine bias runs deep … Yeah, all those initial soundbites immediately so quick to blame the Muslims, guilty until proven innocent because to be Muslim is to be guilty. The Norwegian prime minister himself seemed to be talking immediately about some foreign Islamist agency in his defiant first speech after the event — “They will never succeed in changing Norway from being Norway”.
Oooh, the hypocrisy of it all! The criminal calls himself a Christian and has links to the British Nationalist Party. But, predictably, the media does not label him a “Christian Terrorist”. There will be no calls for the Church to better police itself this Sunday! And, unlike extremist Muslim organizations in the UK, there is not call to shut down the BNP for its tangential involvement in this crime. Then I turn on the BBC and hear some talking head academic from a certain War Studies department arguing that this event shouldn’t be classified as terrorism, tragic though it is. The subtext being: terrorism is a war between east and west, it has a different status from a mentally ill man with guns and an ideology. But Mr Professor — why are you drawing that distinction other than to prop up your own funding, man, other than to legitimate a discourse of violence based on an orientalist distinction of east from west, a discourse whose primary purpose is not to tackle the evil that men do but, rather to maintain control of symbolic capital. (Symbolic capital ranging over everything that can be represented — money, commodities, labour, land, but also university lectures and talking head soundbites.) Mr Professor, why are they funding your research on terrorism, your ownership of the term — other than as a means to control power?
Surely a distinction between the mentally ill/alienated and the peaceful/lovers would be a more useful basis for any genuine approach to really tackle the problem of terrorist acts (in all countries).
This way of thinking cannot be a good thing. Think of it from a God’s Eye view, or at least think about how the Tailorite Jesus would react. The violence has happened, for whatever reason, and the first reaction of the Tailorite ought not be one of smug self-righteous indignation at the politicians and media — it ought to be one of complete loving sympathy to the victims.
Would Jesus be blogging some Foucaultian diatribe about the nature of power and media in such an instance? No, not at all — he’d take on this sin — all of it, onto himself — and he’d weep.
If we are made in the image of God, we ought to cultivate a Godly reaction to all news, good or evil. We are better than this.
I was more emotionally involved in the news of Winehouse’s death. I felt a more direct, personal and human sadness at this, not an abstract sadness.
And that is interesting: the nature of technology has fooled our (still very animal) primate systems into feelings of intimacy with celebrity. This woman has sung for me these years — sitting with my family in my car, her presence has accompanied me on the tube, closer to me than my fellow commuters, she has worked alongside me at my office desk, and in the kitchen as I cook. Of course consciously I’ve just been playing mp3s. But my unconscious primate system is still fooled to the aural illusion at play here: and so this woman is as close to me as any friend or relative.
Hence my genuine sadness at her death, my only abstract distant mourning of the Norway massacre. It’s also the reason why people will get more upset with deaths in one country over deaths in another. A typical Pakistani Muslim will be more upset over children dying in Palestine than in Rwanda or China — simply because they have subjected their primate systems to a stronger information stream from Palestine than the other countries — and so at the very deepest unconscious level, they are more physically intimate with the one information presence than the other.
This is not to say they don’t love or feel mercy equally: I’m talking about the actual level of emotional sadness here, that physical level of mourning.
It’s the same principle behind all deaths and representation: it’s where our stone age selves are most obviously not able to keep up with the toolkits of information transmission we have developed.
What I’ve written is true. But what about the morality of it all? Sadness for something that we know is small in the cosmic scheme of things: it’s still sadness. Someone passed away: it’s not an illusion.
What would Jesus do in the case of Amy? He carries her mistakes upon his cross, he carries her sins so that she is saved. And he’d weep.
If we are made in the image of God, we ought to cultivate a God like reaction to all news, good or evil. We are better than this.
3. Being more like God
But of course it is impossible to carry all that is occurring, to process each and every tragedy of humankind, to catch, carry and process each and every wave of suffering that ripples across the surface of the universe.
It isn’t possible process the totality of all human suffering. Because suffering is a form of knowledge and the totality of knowledge belongs to Allah alone. Those waves, each one of them, they constitute the Body of the Messiah: that’s what it means for him to carry them. And only Allah knows that Body, though it’s our Body, we cannot know it in totality. The Body itself — when understood as Love Loving to be Known — is in a state that moves toward total stillness, total correction of these ripples. And that’s where we come in — it is through our individuated processing of suffering that this eventual stillness will be achieved, and the Messiah will return.
And so we filter our information streams and we process what comes naturally to us, we feel some events more strongly than others. Some are more effected by an event in Palestine than an event in China, some are more effected by a Islamic terrorist attack in New York than by a right wing attack in Norway, some feel a celebrity’s passing away more strongly than the deaths of thousands.
There is nothing wrong with feeling some things more strongly than others: the problem comes about when we fail to read the information streams with divine literacy, when we become trapped, enslaved to the information being presented to us so that it creates a false sense of self containedness. So that we fail to grasp what Allah is saying to us, when we see tragedy in front of us.
Technology and multimedia feeds do not help: a complexity of information feeds only serves to highlight our primate sensory overload, our inability to read.
But while the primate system hasn’t caught up with technology of information transmission, (Tailorite) Islam provides the means to evolve ourselves to process (iqra).
We are on the cusp of a new point of human evolution. The potential is there for the primate system to catch up, right now, by comprehending the (individuated, non-total) information streams being presented to it and reading/processing these streams. This process involves leaving behind the primate shell and living life in a way that enables us to grasp the different forms of tragedy put before us — from the smallest kind to the largest — in a mode that is self-aware of its own reading, that reads the information horror and its own eye reading, horrified by the information. This is a way of locating Christ.
Such a way of reading allows us to become what we are, underneath the dust of our bodies — beings of light, beings of information. The (Tailorite) Islamic reading allows us to shift rapidly, from one stream to the next, from one people to the next, from one media context to the next, from one lifetime to the next, immediately: and rapidly deploy corrective modes of empathy and absorb waves of tragedy with counteracting waves of loving-kindness. To correct and process each hurt without becoming fixated on any particular point in your timeline, in your lifeline. This is called carrying the Cross, and necessarily has the character of “switching” from one stream to the next.
It’s not a question of what would the Messiah do — we know what he would do/does — as much it is a question of how we individually carry the Messianic correction.