"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
I can never stop being astounded at the common definition of obscenity. No, maybe that's not it -- not so much how obscenity is defined but how bizarrely selectively the term is applied.
About 99% of what is counted as "obscene" is either swear words or sexual/pornographic content. The first problem with that is that sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't and a blanket judgment just won't work. I mean, sometimes saying "fuck" is just the absolute best and most honest way to communicate something. And while objectifying and exploiting people and their sexuality is obscene, it's not because of what you're seeing but because of what it does to the personhood of, well, the person. And Madison Avenue does plenty of that to people who have their clothes on.
But all that's is a losing argument. That's the pro/con Puritanism argument, and my experience is you can't win that one ... that a significant segment of the population will always hold to it and -- what is probably worse -- that many who don't hold that view slip into a belief that nothing is obscene ... which is a far more dangerous view.
No, the argument shouldn't be whether or not that "foul language" and some expressions of the body and sexuality are obscene -- but why for all practical purposes we limit our definition to things that, to the degree they are obscene, are outstripped in their obscenity by so many other things.
Maybe it's because it's human nature or our cultural norm to spend a lot of time getting jacked up about things we can separate ourselves from, things we can label as being of "someone else" rather than things that really convict us and force us to face some unpleasant truths -- or force us to change or to act sacrificially or courageously.
I read three articles today. The first two were sent to me by a woman at St. Bart's church in New York who sends me articles about Africa (Sudan, in particular), the third one by Clint Fowler. They're related ... and they're about degrees of obscenity.
Church has failed in its ‘prophetic role,’ WCC speaker charges
by Jerry L. Van Marter Ecumenical News International
PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil — The world’s churches are “missing in action” while 1,000 children die each week in squalid camps in northern Uganda, a former foreign minister of that country said during the global meeting of church leaders in Brazil.
“The worst place in the world today to be a child is in northern Uganda,” said Olara Otunnu, who served as United Nations under secretary for children and armed conflict from 1997 to 2005. “Where is the church?”
He spoke during a media conference at the ninth Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC) here.
“People are being decimated in full view of the world,” he said. “I hope the Assembly will provide a response.”
Uganda’s government and a rebel group in the country, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), are named in a recent United Nations report on grave violations committed against children in situations of armed conflict, Otunnu noted in his presentation to the WCC gathering.
The LRA is accused of kidnapping more than 20,000 children to serve as combatants in the 20-year-long conflict. The Ugandan government is cited for conditions in what Otunnu called about 200 “concentration camps” it has set up in the past 10 years to confine more than 2 million Ugandans in the conflict zone.
The situation, Otunnu said, is “far worse” than that in Darfur, Western Sudan, where an estimated 400,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million driven from their homes in a similar conflict. In Uganda, Otunnu said, “the church, nationally and internationally, has not played the prophetic role demanded of it.”
He urged the WCC to become “partners of 1612,” referring to a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in mid-2005 establishing standards and programs for monitoring and reporting abuses of children by parties engaged in armed conflicts.
However, a “second pillar” is just as crucial, he said: “We should strongly support local communities in their efforts to reclaim and strengthen indigenous cultural norms that have traditionally provided for the protection of children and women in times of war.”
Otunnu spoke during a WCC session intended to highlight the council’s Decade to Overcome Violence 2001-2010, a program that promotes peace and non-violence activities by churches. He directs the LBL Foundation for Children, an independent institution that promotes support for children in communities devastated by war.
I've covered horror stories across the African continent, and every time, I tell myself I've seen it all. But nothing could have prepared me for the scenes I witnessed in the tiny dusty town of Gulu in northern Uganda.
It is in this region that a rebel force -- the Lord's Resistance Army, which claims to base its principles on the Ten Commandments -- has waged a protracted 20-year war against the Ugandan government. The army is led by Joseph Kony, a 43-year-old so-called "Disciple," who is as elusive as he is mysterious. His modus operandi is to kidnap children from villages at night and indoctrinate them into his group. Reports from victims suggest he physically and mentally abuses them into submission. The United Nations says more than 30,000 children have been kidnapped in the last 10 years alone.
In a bid to escape danger over the past three years, every young child in every village surrounding Gulu makes a nightly trek from their village homes to the relative comfort of the town. The locals call them the "night commuters."
They're given shelter at several locations in Gulu -- a canvas roof; a cold, hard floor; and if they're lucky, a blanket. No food, no water, no showers are available. But at least they get to become kids again, knowing Joseph Kony would not attack the well-fortified town. In the morning, they get up and proceed to make the long commute back home, just lucky to be alive.
Those who are kidnapped by Kony's army live a life of horror. While reporting this story, we met Alice, a 19-year-old girl who recently managed to escape after eight years in captivity. She told me blood chilling stories of events no child deserves to witness. She spoke of how the group she was in was made to kill a child who tried to escape by biting him to death, of how she was made to cut up and cook the body of a village chief killed by the rebels and forced to eat the meat from his body, and of how she was raped and eventually had a child from the man who defiled her. She showed us the physical scars of her time as a child soldier -- bullet holes on her leg and shrapnel wounds on her chest.
The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant of arrest for Joseph Kony. Nonetheless, he's able to operate with relative impunity throughout the northern part of Uganda. As long as he's alive and leading his ragtag group of rebels, no child in northern Uganda will ever be safe.
I don't watch Anderson Cooper 360, and I hope this was part of an actual report given on that show ... but I doubt it, because if it was, it would be highly unusual. The genocide in Darfur, the Civil War in Sudan, the silent tsunami of malaria, HIV and other diseases that kill more than 200,000 children under five A WEEK get scarcely a mention in the mainstream media. Right now a group from our diocese is in Southern Sudan, in the middle of a drought that is causing people and animals (which is their livelihood) literally to die of thirst. I saw one article on the inside of the New York Times ... that's it.
This is obscenity. What the LRA is doing in N. Uganda. What the janjaweed is doing in Darfur. Can there be anything more obscene than that. But the truth is, when my honest response is "WHAT THE FUCK?!?!?!?" more people are probably bothered by the word I used than the cause for my reaction.
It's the obscenity we ignore. Part of how we ignore it is by concentrating on other things -- putting all our energy into ridiculous battles like trying to keep loving same-sex partners from adopting a child or 24-hour coverage of one multimillionaire spraying another with birdshot on some Texas ranch. It's obscenity we don't see as obscene because it gets sanitized. It gets sanitized by the so-called journalists who cover it. We don't even get to see the coffins brought off the airplanes from Iraq, much less the decapitated and the dying.
And we need to see them. Not out of some sick desire to see obscenity, but because what we would see would be evidence of the obscenity that is in the act ... and that's the only way the act is going to stop. The only way the obscenity is to stop is for people to see it and be sickened by it. But that's not happening. Not now.
That's the third article, from Normon Solomon at CommonDreams.org. It starts like this;
Death is always in the news. From local car crashes to catastrophes in faraway places, deadly events are grist for the media mill. The coverage is ongoing -- and almost always superficial.
It may be unfair to blame journalists for failing to meet standards that commonly elude artists. For centuries, on the subject of death, countless poets have strived to put the ineffable into words. It's only easy when done badly.
Yet it's hard to think of any other topic that is covered so frequently and abysmally in news outlets. The reporting on death is apt to be so flat that it might be mistaken for ball scores or a weather report.
Pallid coverage of the dying is especially routine in U.S. news media when a war is underway and the deaths are caused by the U.S. government.
The point is that there are degrees of everything. Degrees of persecution. Degrees of suffering. Degrees of obscenity. And when we focus on the relatively benign and ignore or sanitize the extreme; when we fight the wrong fights and cower from the real ones, we are co-creators of the oppression, the suffering, the obscenity.
Telling the truth is a start. And since the media is not doing it, it's an important start. But it's only a start and by itself it isn't enough. We need to tell the truth not just of the reality but of our power and responsibility to change. The truth that whatever happens to one happens to all. That we have the potential for greatness in each one of us, but that potential only becomes realized when we reach out in courage and compassion for those in great need.
There's a scene in Hotel Rwanda where some CNN cameramen have snuck out of the hotel where all the Hutu refugees are holed up and gotten back with some horrible and vivid footage of the Hutu's massacring Tutsi's with machetes. And Don Cheadle, who plays, Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who is trying to keep everyone alive, says to the reporter (played by Joaquin Phoenix, I think) "when people see this they'll have to do something, right?"
The reporter replies:
""If people see this footage, they will go, 'Oh, God! That's horrible,' and then go back to eating their dinner."
Truth is the first step. But only the first. The battle will begin to be won when relationship get built. When the stories are told and the relationships are built with such power and clarity that we know that we are one and that each one of our salvation is wrapped up in all of our salvation.
Then we will begin the real job of dismantling the greatest degrees of obscenity.
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"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."