One of the cultural highlights of last year for me was seeing Cabaret in London’s West End. It made the film seem more emotionally thin than I had remembered it being. Seeing it on stage was powerful and shocking.
Cabaret depicts the end of the Weimar Republic under the violent repression of Nazi terror. What the play portrays most clearly is the way people couldn’t cope with the horrors of what was beginning to happen to them, so sought refuge in the escapist debaucheries of the Berlin night scene. Watching it develop, you can’t help but want to cry out: ‘Can’t you see what you are doing? Can’t you see what is happening – and all you are doing is losing yourselves in ‘pleasure’ while the darkness gradually and violently shrouds the stage?’
This all came to mind during a presentation at an academic conference in Paderborn earlier this week by Geiko Mueller-Fahrenholz – a man put in touch with me last year by Juergen Moltmann. Trying to move us on from consideration of ‘Just War’ theory, he opened up for consideration and discussion a draft World Council of Churches (WCC) text called The Ecumenical Declaration on Just Peace. Having debated it, it seemed obvious that we should focus on a ‘just peace’, given that Just War Theory is usually engaged once war has begun or the decision to go to war has in effect already been taken. In that sense, it becomes a post hoc justification for a war.
In the course of our discussions in Paderborn, Mueller-Fahrenholz spoke of the violence of our culture and our apprent retreat into what I usually call ‘distraction therapy’ – precisely what was happening in the dying days of the Weimar Republic in Germany. The threats are so great and the options so complicated that we distract ourselves with entertainment or trivia – anything to occupy our minds and sensibilities and save us from the fear that reality would otherwise evoke. He quoted someone else (I can’t remember whom) calling this ‘psychic numbing’ – a phrase I found to be helpful as a pithy summary of the complex psychosocial phenomenon.
The thesis behind the search for a just peace is that the earth cannot sustain our ways of being human together. Christians must be committed to both peace on earth and peace with the earth, but the cost of this is high and many Christian theologies – shaped by other syncretistic assumptions – simply cannot face it. For example, rather than address the likelihood of there being 150 million climate refugees within forty years, we prefer to put our heads down and – in the words of Neil Postman in relation to the media – ‘amuse ourselves to death’.
This ‘psychic numbing’ provokes a sort of ‘distraction therapy’ that focuses our attentions on smaller matters that might be important in their own right, but not in terms of the bigger picture and the bigger threats. Whereas not everybody will resort to the hedonism of Weimar Berlin, we can submerge ourselves in an obsession with celebrity, entertainment or something else. Entertainment is a good thing and vital to a good life; but not when it becomes a means of retreating from the real world.
When I feel like burying my head with boredom or fear at the threats to the world, I look at my children and (future… maybe) grandchildren and remember that I shape their world by my decisions and neglects and distractions now. Hiding, therefore, cannot be an option for anyone who sees the issues and is, therefore, morally bound to choose what to do in response. Working towards a just peace should become the preoccupation of politicians, media and religious leaders at every level of life. We are clearly not there yet.
For Christians there are at least two challenges here. First, the focus of Christian ecumenical discussion needs to move from preoccupations with internal ‘purities’ to addressing our common agendas as human beings through a commonly-held Christian lens. Build up the church by all means; but only in order then to serve the world that is God’s and of which we are stewards. Second, just how far are some of our preoccupations, arguments and worship cultures simply an alternative form of escapist ‘distraction therapy’ – focusing our attention on things that get us going and fill our minds and time, but distract us from the big questions that matter more?
Geiko Mueller-Fahrenholz has put his finger on an important challenge here – one he also sees as an opportunity for the churches to get their act together and recover their primary vocation. I need to think further and see where this takes me in my own responsibilities.