Exercising the Spirit: Bob, the modern media and the old, old story...
Thirty years after the original Band Aid, Bob Geldof has returned front-&-centre stage, directing the global media to focus on helping the people in West Africa with Ebola; unashamedly he attempts to use celebrity power to mobilise political will. It is good to have him back.
Bob’s media presence in such a debate is a catalyst which manages (consciously and unconsciously) to provoke big moral questions which people normally try to ignore; so the very fact that we are forced to answer them every few years is no bad thing.
The modern media ...
In 1986 the British Jesuit Provincial, Jock Earle, had been watching the chaos in South Africa unfolding before his eyes on the Television news. Rioting, shooting, fire-bombing, tear gas... Soweto was in flames and blood was being spilt as the forces of the apartheid state attempted to crush the cry for freedom of the township.
After days of this, one night Jock decided to phone the Jesuit community in our parish in Orlando West, Soweto to express solidarity for our brothers under siege. His phone call from London managed to wake up the entire community who had all been fast asleep. No, they explained Soweto is a BIG place and Orlando West was quite calm and peaceful: the riots were very localised in another part of Soweto. Through the TV camera lens, the riots seemed to be the whole media story of Soweto & South Africa.
Such is still the case today. Modern media craves eye-catching imagery and a simple narrative. But Africa is not like that. It is big and complex, diverse, bigger than and as varied as any continent on earth, with its own hopes and fears, needs and desires. Ebola is certainly an issue, but geographically it is affecting a relatively small area and small number of people.
If you live on a diet of Breaking News, Africa will be lodged in your psyche as one large overcrowded hospital filled with helpless, sick and dying black people who are being ministered to by kind and skilled Americans wearing space suits. But that is only one bit in a colourful million-piece jigsaw of Africa.
Thus, Spiritual Exercise No 1: Keep your vision wide, look around the headlines. The human narrative is far richer and more nuanced than we are often led to believe.
The old, old story concerns the human heart, which, once more, emerges both as graced and as shadowed and in need of constant renewal.
Ebola is a 2014 crisis that needn’t have happened. Outbreaks – vicious and devastating - have been occurring in Africa for 40 years. Six months ago there was no money available seriously to study Ebola. But suddenly vast sums are being found to research a cure by Western Governments who want to be seen to be doing something because non-Africans are being ever-so-vaguely threatened.
Like a fire, our hearts easily go cold when they are left untended and we incline to focus-in on ourselves. We have a tendency to selfishness – and governments really just absorb our prejudices.
So: Spiritual Exercise No 2: tone the muscles of the heart by at least one gratuitous act of kindness each day.
But there is another dimension of the Geldof Effect which just gets us into a fierce spiritual tail-spin: Should we buy the record? Am I being authentic? Or am I just being caught up in the hype and I am just being hypocritical or superficial?
The problem here is that we start to over-scrutinise our motives: Am I giving for the right reason? Am I being true to myself? etc..
Hum, ha, hum, ha... We can’t decide.
As we cast around for answers, journalists and opinion makers will be helpfully confusing as they expound on how this is the wrong way to help, and it should be done this way etc... So I then start to look to see whether my motives are pure... and they won’t be. They never are. Most of the ethical decisions in our lives will be shades of grey, not black or white, so we get caught in a hall of receding mirrors, not sure which reflection is the real me...
St Ignatius of Loyola would be very clear that this malaise, this indecision, is NOT from God, so don’t trust it. God doesn’t try to lead us to point where we become paralysed and vacillate and ultimately do nothing.
A good rule-of-thumb is if you have a better option than Bob’s path then go for that instead. You might be planning to give £10 to CAFOD, or Save the Children or Jesuit Refugee Service etc.. then do that and do that promptly. OR you might be saving up to take on a caring role for others and all monies are needed to prepare... that too is fine, because you are putting into action a plan for others.
But if you find yourself caught in that hall of mirrors... if you find yourself struggling vaguely with your motives... your integrity... and have no concrete alternatives to help someone else NOW... then you are probably thinking too much about yourself.
In that case, Spiritual Exercise No 3: Don’t delay, act now: “****ing download the music!”
Welcome back, Bob.
By Fr Dermot Preston SJ, British Provincial