Yesterday saw the return to planet earth of the Canadian commander of the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield. During his time orbiting our little planet he has sent some extraordinary photographs of space, the ISS itself and the planet. I came across him on twitter and was hooked.
Looking down from a great height grants a new perspective to the viewer. Tied up in the detail of living in a big and complex city, it is easy to lose sight of the 'big picture' and the meaning of it all. I was only 10 when Apollo 8 took the first human beings out of earth's orbit and sped them around the moon and back. They became the first human beings ever to see the earth in its entirety from space – and their photographs became the most beautiful and iconic images ever seen. Looking back at the earth changed for ever the way we saw our life on and exploitation of the earth.
Chris Hadfield did something similar in that he gave access to the mystery of meaning by capturing views from a great height in such a way as to put the preoccupations of daily living into a larger context. He posted hundreds of mesmerising images on twitter and then did a David Bowie cover video before returning back to Kazakhstan in the Soyuz capsule. If he ever gives up being an astronaut, he clearly has a fantastic career ahead of him in media and communication.
There's nothing original in all of this. It just brings to my mind the words of the Psalmist who, looking at the starry sky at night, asked: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, who are we that you are mindful of us, human beings that you care for us?” (Psalm 8) Confronted by the mystery of the enormity and beauty of the cosmos, why do we think we even matter?
Well, there is a time and place for such contemplation and the writing of such poetry. But, look down again and we are caught up in the mystery of human fallibility and the limitless capacity of human beings to do appalling things to one another and to the planet. It is sometimes hard to hold onto the beauty in the face of the horror. Events in Syria easily blend into 'big stuff' that we cannot comprehend and so push to the back of our consciousness; feeling helpless, we filter it out – even reports of a rebel eating the heart of a government soldier.
Yet, here is the rub. That heart belonged to a person who is a brother, a son, a husband, a neighbour. The death and post-mortem abuse of this person changes for ever the lives of individuals and communities. Even in the context of the enormous cosmos, we still think that what happens to a unique person matters. Why?
This has been brought home to us in England most acutely by the stories of intentional, cruel, exploitative grooming of young girls by gangs of men. The trials in Oxford that concluded yesterday beg huge questions about a society that claims to be civilised whilst allowing such behaviour to continue for so long. And every individual girl or boy involved matters infinitely. It is hard – though vital – to hold onto the beauty and meaning of the universe and human life whilst staring human cruelty and exploitation in the eyes.
The best commentary I have read thus far is by the BBC's excellent Mark Easton. He puts his finger on the sensitive question of whether we just find it too hard to address some questions when 'community cohesion' or 'race' are involved. He is dead right. And just as racism is an evil to be exposed and rooted out, so is a refusal to name things for what they are. The element the media and politicians (in particular) need to pay attention to in these matters is language and category: the fact that someone is a Muslim does not mean that Islam is what drives him to abuse young girls or boys; the fact that someone is nominally (or tribally) Christian does not mean that it is Christianity that makes them behave atrociously. As I noted in an earlier post, ethnicity and religion should not be confused: they are not synonymous.
What lies under all this is an uncomfortable anthropological reality: the human propensity to commodify anything we can lay our hands on. We turn people into objects for exploitation, sale or entertainment (look at the tabloid media, for example); we turn the earth into a Swiss cheese, forgetting that the one thing not being made any more is land and what lies underneath it. Child sexual exploitation powerfully dehumanises both victims and perpetrators; the victims need to be defended and liberated, the perpetrators need to be held accountable and be reminded that moral accountability – integral to human being – demands justice. People are not commodities.
The great Bruce Cockburn puzzles over this stuff – the contrast and tension between the beauty of the cosmos and human being on the one hand and the inhumane bestiality of some human behaviour – when he writes:
Amid the rumours and the expectations and all the stories dreamt and lived
Amid the clangour and the dislocation and things to fear and to forgive
Don't forget about delight…