A Boredom Revolution

During our family vacation Jana and I got to spend two nights at the monastery of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie. Incidentally, this is the home of Christian author Joan Chittister. Sister Chittister gave a public lecture the evening we were there, which was a real treat.

We weren't there for a directed retreat with a program. We were simply on our own, enjoying the hospitality of the Benedictine sisters and left to fill the day for ourselves.

When you have that much time on your hands, along with being electronically unplugged, you can start to get bored. Or at least I can get bored. I'm not a natural contemplative. But the boredom made me think of something the author and theologian James Alison has written about worship in a violent world. At one point in his analysis Alison makes a point about why the Mass is boring (Alison is Catholic). He says this:
When people tell me that they find Mass boring, I want to say to them: it's supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming. It's a long term education in becoming un-excited... 
Alison is making the argument that the world tends to function as a Nuremberg rally where everything around us--from political discourse to advertising to social media--is trying to whip us up into a frenzy. A frenzy that, more often than not, is directed against others. Cable news, talk radio and political blogging are basically a Nuremberg rally, an attempt to anger us and excite us with propaganda. In the face of all this excitement and frenzy Christian worship, according to Alison, should function as a sort of counter-propaganda, a place where we can become unexcited. Where others are whipped into an anxious or angry frenzy Christians should be bored.

This line of argument reminded me of a recent article I read by Carl McColman entitled "A Contemplative Revolution." McColman makes the argument that contemplation can be a form of resistance, a way to fight against the principalities and powers. The idea here is similar to the one Alison makes, a "dropping out" of the frenzy:
[C]ontemplation represents a way to disengage from the toxicity of our current world order, not in terms of supporting violent revolution, but in an opposite move: by embracing a revolution of humility and love. We cannot beat the greedy, violent, unjust enemy-that-is-us with weapons or military might. Only by "dropping out" of the system can we hope to overcome it with a new way of living. What is this new way? A way of reconciliation rather than violence, of shared resources rather than enforced inequity, a way of simply and quietly living rather than getting caught up in the ever-increasing frenzy of acquisition and competition. Such values are the fruit of contemplation. They are the values that monasteries embody, if imperfectly. They are the values of resistance.
Along these same lines, I also recently read Eric Anglada's article for Jesus Radicals entitled "A Contemplative Anarchism: Re-Introducing Gustav Landauer." I don't know Landauer, but I found Eric's description of a "contemplative anarchy" to be very interesting. Eric writes,
Landauer did not believe that we need to wait for ‘The Revolution’ to topple ‘The System.’ Instead, it is something we can begin now by “relating to one another differently.” Rather than ‘smashing the state,’ Landauer sought to ‘opt out’—that is, refuse to give any positive energy to the state through voting, lobbying, or paying taxes.
Whatever you think about refusing to vote or not paying taxes, the part that interests me is the notion of opting out and refusing to give any positive energy to the system, all in the effort of relating to others more humanely. This contemplative "opting out" is similar to McColman's contemplative "dropping out" and Alison's liturgical boredom. And each is described as resistance, anarchism, or as counter-propaganda.

So in light of all this I'm thinking about being a part of a boredom revolution. This election year, as Nuremberg-levels of propaganda and mass hysteria escalate, I'm working on cultivating "the values of resistance"--opting out, dropping out, and expressing boredom with it all.

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30 thoughts on “A Boredom Revolution”

  1. I love this, Richard! The excitement of the for/against paradigm is far too easy to blur into true irrelevance to real suffering. This brings to mind a quote from David Dark I saw in the past few days: "The feeling of offendedness is invigorating. It might even be an effective way to bend a population toward a tyrant's will. But we must never settle for it. We must not confuse an accelerated pulse for the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. We must interrogate our offendedness, hold it open to question. Complaining about Harry Potter or getting worked up over The Golden Compass (Philip Pullman's literary response to the damage done to people's imaginations in the name of religion) or pitting ticket sales of the Narnia films against Brokeback Mountain is a much less complicated call than that whole business of loving neighbors, to say nothing about loving enemies. If we're more opposed, for instance, to what we take to be 'bad language' and nude scenes and films about gay people than we are to people being blown up, starved to death, deprived of life-saving medicine, or tortured, our offendedness is out of whack. We have yet to understand the nature of real perversion. We aren't as deeply acquainted with our religion as we might think."

    from The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, by David Dark

    The excitement of offense and protest is a distraction from the real work we have been given; to love one another as He loved us. 

    If we were to let this sacred boredom sink deeply into our hearts and lives, we just might come to enjoy the excitement of seeing the grateful faces of the hungry being fed, and the outcasts being sheltered and clothed. 

    When we let ourselves become distracted with the excitement of protest and offendedness, it becomes very difficult to simply "be still, and know that He is God."

  2. Great quote. Thanks for sharing it.

    To add some more along these lines. I don't think a "sacred boredom"--I like that turn of phrase--necessarily involves non-involvement (though it could and for many will). The "dropping out" and "opting out" are tied, as I see it, less to our behaviors than to our emotions. It is a boredom with the way the culture tries to whip us up into a frenzy or to make us anxious, fearful or suspicious. Only when we become bored with propaganda-driven anger and fear can we truly locate holy anger and holy indignation. 

  3. Dr. Beck, I am feeling the peaceful vibe.  I think this is the meaning and intention of Buddhist contemplative prayer, "detachment," and ultimate compassion.  Detach from being so violently invested in "causes."  But *not* from loving, suffering with, and acting to care for the world.

    Facebook can be a toxic cesspool of violence, in terms of people hawking their causes and hating.  It was why I unplugged.  So depressing and exhausting to deal with, at the time.  I am in a better place, spiritually, now.  But it has been months since I really paid attention to the news, on TV, over the Internet, or in hard print.  My husband is eager to tell me the "big" stories.  Sometimes I have to say, "Stop!  I don't need to hear this."  It isn't as though my head is buried in the sand, either, though.  I am becoming more "educated" about the causes of violence and oppression in this world, and ways that a peacemaking person might exert a Christlike influence.  Less knee-jerk, and more thoughtful responsiveness.

    The frustrating and sad part of all this is that I am feeling my age.  Wouldn't it have been great to know more when I was younger and had more energy and time?  D'oh!

    As for submitting to boredom...  So long as I can walk and think and pray, read and think and pray, and/or listen to music and think and pray -- and in between talk through some of the kinks with a peace-loving person, I'm good anywhere, monastery included!  A vow of silence would probably be a torture, for any length of time.  ~Peace~

  4. "Like many men today I am tired of criticism, of disparagement, of spitefulness--of churlishness, in short. It is essential to condemn what must be condemned, but quietly and firmly. On the other hand one should praise at length what still deserves to be praised." --Albert Camus

  5. The title of this post is an oxymoron.  It would be interesting to see how these ideas might play out going forward after days of light blog traffic (only to be followed after each lull by a controversial post guaranteeing high traffic).  That seems to be the pattern in the blogosphere, this one being no exception.  We humans tend to stay more focused when risk/reward is apparent when discussing our worldview, less so on the weather for today.

  6. As one who dropped out and opted out of right-wing, conservative, political and (supposedly) Christian activism several years ago, I can attest to the fact that you gain an entirely different mindset. You begin to stop categorizing people as us or them, as good or bad, as friend or foe. You begin to see people as the bent, broken, beautiful works of art that they actually are. It's surprisingly easy to hate someone when you have labeled them as a democrat or a republican, a conservative or a liberal, an Atheist or a Christian, a Muslim or a Jew. It's surprisingly hard to hate someone when you have so lost interest in labels and categories that they cease to have any meaning.

  7. Just out of curiosity, was anyone bored by the whole Chick-Fil-A thing? And I don't mean, disgusted by or washing your hands of it or "going to the basement." I just mean bored. As in "unexcited," to use Alison's word.

  8. I was unable to be bored because Christians went out of their way to promote their neighbors' suffering.

  9. What's the deal with Chick-Fil-A? We enjoy eating there when we come to the States. It's not closing down, is it?

  10. Thanks for bringing that up. I can identify.

    What I'm trying to push back on is how conservative Evangelicals are being used as an object of fascination. A shiny lure that is dangled in front of us. A lure meant to excite us and stir us up. I want to cultivate a boredom to that lure.

    No doubt, there is a fine line here. Take an extreme case, Westboro Baptist Church. This church as, what, 50 members? But think about how much press they get. They get this amount of coverage because they are an object of fascination, a lure. That is not to say we shouldn't condemn them, but isn't a certain amount of boredom with them the best way to resist? Because if we don't grow bored these 50 people continue to dominate the media and internet. I think something similar is going on with pictures of Evangelicals lining up outside Chick Fil A.

  11. God bless all my international readers!

    You'll need to Google Chick Fil A and find out about all the drama we've had here in the states. Wouldn't you believe it has to do with, of all things, gay marriage.

  12. Insightful, and a welcome balm after the last few weeks of the news. Very much appreciate seeing contemplation as a personal and social "revolution" of sorts. Yet how *does* one balance "dropping out" with the moral responsibility to care for others? The "Nuremberg rally" metaphor is both telling and problematic, I think. On the one hand, that's an excitable description of contemporary public discourse, one calculated to appeal on an emotional level. After all, we know what it led to. Best to run away from *that.* On the other hand, if we do "opt out" to the point of running away, what--or better who--are we ignoring, neglecting? Only the ideological cheerleaders? Only polarizing discourse?  The Chick-Fil-A spectacle, for example, nauseated me, frustrated me, and bored me. Yet understanding its causes, its rationale, and its symbolism seemed and still seem relatively important, emphasis on *relatively.* Putting things in a larger evaluative context is key, and likely requires the dispassionate "boredom" described here. But part of that context are the real people and real issues of justice and power at work. Again, looking for way to balance or combine a the "boredom" and the "revolution" I guess.    

  13. Oh my gosh! NOT a chicken-and-the-egg thing, is it? ONLY in America!! ;)  
    (Hopping over to Google as I press 'send' on this reply.)

  14. The last thing anyone who knows me would call me is an "Evangelical Christian".  So I have no interest in the CFA story as it pertains to gay marriage.  What I feel must not stand unchallenged is your framing of this issue.  This is an issue of government control and freedom of speech.  Why is a conservative Christian not allowed to express his opinion without threats from government officials (Boston, Chicago, SF)?  Chick-Fil-A does not discriminate in either its hiring or serving practices, but the First Amendment to the Constitution was still in effect the last time I checked.

    The lines at CFA where filled with more than just "Evangelical Christians".  But if you think not, you have not been following the story closely enough.

  15. It's a hard question. One thought, though it's just a thought and not in any way my "answer" or "recommendation." Just a thought that comes to mind.

    The temptation in resisting the Nuremberg rally is to create a counter-Nuremberg rally. And then to have those two forces--the forces of light and darkness--do battle. That's one way to go. Trouble is, the powers that be use this dynamic to keep power and make money.

    The alternative, as argued by people like Yoder and Hauerwas, is to create an alternative and contrast community, a "peaceable kingdom." That is, my response to something like Chick Fil A isn't to whip up Nuremberg levels of excitement on my side. It is, rather, to "drop out" and simply live at peace with the people in my own life. Because that's all I can ever do anyway. 

    Though I think the root problem wasn't about about Chick Fil A and gay marriage but with the cultural reputation of Christianity. The trap is that when we see the media paying attention to lines outside Chick Fil A we want to rush and say, "I'm not like those folks!" The social media war around Chick Fil A seemed to be a battle over the reputation of Christianity in the eyes of the culture. And I think that's a valid and important concern. I'd even say it's a form of evangelism and apologetics to defend the faith in this way. But I think we can defend the reputation of Christianity in a way that keeps with the boredom ethos, a way that keeps with the vibe of the Camus quote I posted in this thread. Copied here:

    "Like many men today I am tired of criticism, of disparagement, of
    spitefulness--of churlishness, in short. It is essential to condemn what
    must be condemned, but quietly and firmly. On the other hand one should
    praise at length what still deserves to be praised." --Albert Camus

    By "boredom ethos" I'm picking up on this line: "It is essential to condemn what
    must be condemned, but quietly and firmly."

    That is, be people of virtue and conviction without all the attendant freakout and drama.

  16. Westboro isn't popular with 99% of conservative evangelicals because they rail against the U.S. military.  Ignoring them when they're not near you has some benefits.

    Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Exodus International, American Family Association, Fellowsihp of Christian Athletes --- those are big enough and are popular enough and have enough social and political power (unlike Westboro) to make life hell for lots of people, even without directly confronting those people.  They can guilt-trip you into buying snake oil that makes you miserable and suicidal.  They can advocate for getting the state to murder gay people.

    They're a different animal.

  17. I see that. And truth be told, I'm torn. What I'm doing in this post, in this thread, and in this exchange with you is exploring, in my own mind, the limits of "boredom" as a response. I'll admit, it doesn't sit well with prophetic engagement.

    If we back away from the Chick Fil A example I think the larger point of the post--about not contributing positive energy to the toxic stew of our current political and cultural discourse--has some merit.

  18. CFA has a right to say what they want. And I have the right to think they are wrong. And I do want to say my piece in a non excitable, boring way that invites CFA to convert to my view without me demonizing them

  19. Finding both the major U.S. parties to be counter-Christian, I don't want to add to their stultifying grip on Christians' political imaginations by relinquishing to their shiny-lure campaigns the right to set the boundaries of political discussion.  That's probably a pretty boring approach, if I understand you right.

  20. And that is a valid POV.

    I just happen to see the last two posts and comments here as reinforcing evidence for charges from the right that the PC Police are hypocritical in their selective indignation, letting folks like Harry Reid, Rahm Immanuel, and Eric Holder off the hook for just as many hate-filled comments as Dan Cathey ever dared to utter.  Not to mention many Black pastors and Muslim clerics, and the majority of voters in 32 states.  All wrapped up in the guise of "boredom"?  Is this "revolution" going to begin with a nice, long nap?

    Imagine if you had said that you are "pro-choice", and so everyone in America then labeled you as a "hater of unborn children".  You get that?

  21. Yes, although that didn't involve ignoring, just working on a careful and measured response. There's danger in boredom that leads to disengagement. When good people become disengaged bad things happen. If, for example, some of those "bad"  Christians eating chickent last week ended up coming after me and my kind with pitchforks, disengaged "good" Christians sitting at home feeling peaceful and looking the other way would be complicit. And we'd be dead.

  22. Yes, that's the danger. And why I think, upon reflection, the Chick Fil A situation is not a good application for this post. The key, I think, is vigilance, to be always perpared and looking for the pitchforks and ready to stand with others and for others in front of them. Makes me think of that famous passage from the Holocaust attributed to pastor Martin Niemöller:


    First they came for the communists,
    and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews,
    and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

    Then they came for me
    and there was no one left to speak out for me.

  23. Sam, when I disagree with another I certainly do not want to do it in a hate filled way. The question is how. The two simplest reponses are flight or fight. Jesus teaches a third way, turning the other cheek. This is both standing with one's dignity and honoring the other's dignity, even when they are being hurtful.

    I have largely stopped watching politians such as the one's you mention. They are all operating from the same play book-- demonizing others while pretending innocence.

    The CFA folks, as I said, have the right to say what they believe. Since I am related to gay people, have seen gay people rejected by their families and dumped on the street, witnessed attempted murder and heard threats of murder in person in two different third world countries similar to Uganda, I would ask the CEO to think about the potential deadly consequences of his words. I may accept his belief in what marriage is. And I will gently share my story. The violence against gay people is real. And people of faith must stand against that first. That should be the first, primary, dominant word from Christians. And I want to say that in a way that does not spread the same pain and fear that I see.

    I am unclear about what your last sentence is getting at. I have not posted anything about "unborn children". I apologize and don't see the connection to my previous note.

    Again, I do think there is something to be said about boredom, being nonreactive, and being a non anxious presence which will take.energy out of the accusations

  24. I've been saying such a thing for years. Entirely bored and perhaps a bit remiss regarding the whole thing. Although I've found it difficult to explain this sort of perspective throughout this time as it is not a popular directive. I just seem to care about very different things from the typical news reporter.

  25. There is hate speech (unsubstantiated by facts) on this page, directed against organizations which do not toe the PC line on gay marriage.  This speech was initiated, encouraged, and agreed to by the blog author, and I do not intend to communicate here any further.  I find it disgusting, and there is more hatred on display here than I have ever seen in any visit to a Chick Fil A. 

    However, since you don't seem to understand what I am saying, let us suppose that you agree that a woman has a right (sanctioned officially by the government) to chose either to deliver her unborn child or have it aborted for any reason or no reason.  You are "Pro-Choice".  So I then turn around and yell to everyone I can at the top of my lungs that you are "a hater of unborn children".  Does the one not automatically follow the other?  No, you say?  Well -- it seems to here in regards to gay marriage.

    This is EXACTLY what the people on this blog are doing in reference to CFA.  Just because a private citizen dares to use his own time, energy, and resources to defend the institution of traditional marriage, people started screaming about HATRED.  Thousands of Americans supported CFA precisely because of this glaring double standard and illegal attempts by government officials to suppress and block not only free speech but freedom of commerce.  Some might have been "evangelical Christians", but at least as many were not.  But that does not fit well with the "narrative" here, because apparently, there is this new creature now which I will call the "Progressive Christian".  The MO here is finding out how many ways there are to beat up on other Christians.  The irony is, I am an agnostic!

    Now, you may return your head back into the sand.

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