Advent (that four weeks of waiting for Christmas) is roaring in as Judaeo-Christian practice declares it must. In Christian practice this is a time, not for candy gifts each day but for a deep reckoning with the great public issues of our day: economic justice, war, peace and the worth of our human bodies.
Two years ago I read Bread in the Bone by Salem Nawaz. The book describes the life of two sisters, one of whom has an eating disorder. Since then, I have been somewhat obsessed by the word “complicit” and the various ways I and others are complicit in all sorts of inaction. I come from a family where men and women have struggled with weight issues for generations, myself included. My mother was always on a diet! In truth for a lot of my life I was on some sort of diet and later some sort of cleanse. I compared myself to models in magazines and found myself wanting. I find within myself a lot of judgment toward myself and others in the area of weight control. I also wonder how I am a bystander in this western world epidemic and what if anything I could do about it.
I am delightfully surprised and affirmed by the recent announcement by dictionary.com that the word of the year in 2017 is “complicit”. Simply put, it means being, at some level, responsible for something, even if indirectly. Or it is understood as one person’s contribution to wrong doing that is perpetrated by another. It makes me think about what it is to be both a bystander and also to have been the victim of bystanders. I invite you as an advent practice to explore this in your own life. It is possible to pick any issue and wonder about your own complicity.
Right now, more and more women and some men are announcing that they are victims of sexual assault and naming the perpetrator. In the past, persons who have done this have not fared well and have often been left unsupported while the perpetrator carries on with life with little consequence. I think this must be akin to being traumatized yet again for such brave people.
The “me-too” eruption has given all of us the encouragement to name our own experiences of such assaults from minor to major. Most women have had a first hand experience of this at some point in our lives. Today famous men, are being publicly shamed. Some will lose their jobs but at least one may win election to the US senate. We can be both victim and bystander to this behaviour.
What is my culpability, my complicity? It is so easy to be a bystander. Chiara Leproa in talking about her book Complicity and Compromise, states recently on the CBC, “Most people somewhat have the idea that doing nothing cannot be wrong. And so they think: 'If I act, maybe there can be negative consequences,'" I have experienced this thought in myself and others. I agree that non action is immoral but the cost of action in some cases paralyzes me.
This past weekend in Hamilton, Ontario a 19 year-old named Yosif Al-Hasnawi, was shot and killed in front of his 13 year-old brother. He had tried to help an older man who he saw was being accosted by two men on the street. They shot him in the belly. It is alleged the police were too off-hand telling him to stop faking it. He was dead on arrival at the Emergency. He was not a bystander!
American law profession Amos Guitar, in his new book The Crime Of Complicity, gives us a good Advent idea. The biblically-literate among you will think he has the perfect name, Amos. He makes a case for making bystander intervention not just a moral duty but also a legal duty. If this interests you, you can hear the professor talk about his book at http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thesundayedition/the-sunday-edition-december-3-2017-1.4428070/the-crime-of-complicity-the-case-for-making-bystander-inaction-a-punishable-offence-1.4428074. Listening to this and reflecting on it is an advent practice. It makes me think about all the ways in which I would be required to take legal action. It overwhelms me. Would I be boycotting the junk food industry, not attending sports games where the risk of CTE is possible, voting for the Green Party and so much more?
Then there is the very subtle idea expressed by Chiara Lepora and Robert E Goodin in their new book. We would agree with them that not all ways of being mixed up in the wrongdoing of others are on a par; some are worse than others. Yet they further suggest “contributing complicitly to wrongdoing, while still wrong in itself, might nonetheless be the right thing to do if that is the only way to achieve some greater good.” This is a very fetching idea yet troubling for me. I do find myself thinking this way I as I expect you have too when you give it serious thought. Is not keeping Charlie Rose in place better for us all because he is such a brilliant interviewer than firing him for alleged sexual misconduct? I confess I miss his wisdom. Also I was afraid that Roy Moore would win the vote in Alabama. I was afraid that the greater good would be a Republican Senate!
In Christianity, this idea appears in John’s Gospel. It is the position that the Jewish leaders took at the trial of Jesus. Rome occupied Syria, Egypt and Palestine but kept armies in only Syria and Egypt. Rome’s job for Palestine was to stay peaceful and collect taxes to keep the Roman empire secure. Rome depended largely on the Jews in Palestine to perform these duties. Reform minded Jesus, a good Jew, and his Jewish followers were a threat to these duties especially concerning tax collection. Thus, in John’s gospel we have the senior Jewish high priest Caiaphas at Jesus’ trial saying to the his people, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than the whole nation perish.” The crowds back Caiaphas and Jesus is killed. Thus, the very troubling anti-Semitic idea that the Jews are responsible for Jesus death receives support. It is embarrassing for Christians. Yet, the gospel writer description of Caiaphas’ position is also the one espoused centuries later by Lepora and Goodin and remains a common idea.
After having raised this idea that sometimes being complicit with the wrong doing can be a worthy action, Lepora and Goodin also ask us to look at another idea. They want us to look beyond successfully punishing the perpetrator as if that is the end goal. While they affirm accountability, they go further and ask us to look at the whole system that gave rise to such wrongdoing in the first place. This is the system that has also victimized the perpetrator.
I like this a lot. I am a systemic therapist and in my field, I am excited about the work of Terrence Real and the way in which he is addressing the trauma that patriarchy has caused both men and women. I think we are crying out for root causes. Patriarchy is and still is a root cause of much that is not working. I notice in all the discussions about the Commission on Missing Murdered Indigenous Women, there is a consistent plea to get at root causes. This is long and time-consuming work. Are we not complicit if we are not engaged in this work?
One evening recently, I was having dinner with a group of psychotherapist colleagues. I outlined a workplace situation for them that caused us all to wrestle with how not to be a bystander. We could not stop talking and sharing ideas. Our energy for the subject filled me with hope. I think we all engaged in an Advent practice.
Yes, there is a lot to think about this advent. I think dictionary.com got it right!