‘Dervish At The Door’ | Fertilising Debate

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Dervish At The Door

A dervish knocked at a house
to ask for a piece of dry bread,
or moist, it didn’t matter.

“This is not a bakery,” said the owner.
“Might you have a bit of gristle then?”
“Does this look like a butchershop?”
“A little flour?”
“Do you hear a grinding stone?”
“Some water?”
“This is not a well.”

Whatever the dervish asked for,
the man made some tired joke
and refused to give him anything.
Finally the dervish ran in the house,
lifted his robe, and squatted
as though to take a shit.

“Hey, hey!”
“Quiet, you sad man. A deserted place
is a fine spot to relieve oneself,
and since there’s no living thing here,
or means of living, it needs fertilizing.”

The dervish began his own list of questions and answers.

“What kind of bird are you? Not a falcon,
trained for the royal hand. Not a peacock,
painted with everyone’s eyes. Not a parrot,
that talks for sugar cubes. Not a nightingale,
that sings like someone in love.

Not a hoopoe bringing messages to Solomon,
or a stork that builds on a cliffside.

What exactly do you do?
You are no known species.
You haggle and make jokes
to keep what you own for yourself.
You have forgotten the One
who doesn’t care about ownership,
who doesn’t try to turn a profit
from every human exchange.”

Jelaluddin Rumi.

From: The Essential Rumi, Translated by Coleman Barks

I sought out this poem again yesterday. I’d been reading some online interactions between a few people within and around the philosophy of religion, radical theology and ’emergent’ communities and… some of it struck me as just lacking basic human kindness – from many sides.

I wanted to ask, as the Dervish does, ‘what exactly do you do? You haggle and make jokes…

It struck me that there are some people who see it as their place to take cheap shots at those who are publicly trying to their best to articulate thoughts about complex philosophical, sociological and theological issues – and live out some of that in what they create too. Yes, these people are imperfect, yes what they do may fail… but the fact that they are having a go should, I believe count for something. Not everything – critique is vital and important, but it should at least be offered in some kind of framework of kindness. Not snarky.

The academy is too often a sterile and dangerous ivory tower, where confession – the hard act of living out what you spout, is often low on the agenda. And I’ve found some of the reactions from some people, in private spaces and online, frankly incredible. To use an analogy: it’s too easy to mock the unfit people you meet in the gym. But the fact is, they’re the ones trying to do something about it. What about those who aren’t even trying? They escape any critique, simply by their passivity?

I’m not interested in naming names, simply asking for each to do some personal reflection… And to those uber-critical people, those who hate so much but produce so little… I want to shit on your doorsteps, not as an act of offence, but because ‘a deserted place is a fine spot to relieve oneself,‘ and some shit might help fertilize what, sadly, can be the barren and sterile places of your snarky timelines and blogs, on all sides. Because actually, most hate appears to me to spring from self-hatred. The attacks come as some sort of defence. It’s hurtful, but it’s surely self-harm too. Makes me sad to watch.

/Ends/


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  1. Marika

    It’s funny knowing how to read this post because I obviously don’t know exactly which conversations you are talking about, which people seem to you to have been unkind. So maybe this response will miss the mark. But this feels to me to be a frustrating intervention into the conversations that I’ve seen taking place recently, for a couple of reasons.

    First, I think it ignores some of the history of those conversations. What I’ve seen is a series of mostly pretty measured and thoughtful critiques of people in the radical theology/emerging church world, which have been met, overwhelmingly, with dismissiveness, evasiveness and a complete failure to engage, *after which* has come satire and attack. I don’t have much of a stake in these conversations, and these communities aren’t ones I belong to, but seeing the way that powerful people have responded to criticism has been infuriating. I can’t imagine how much more frustrating it is for people who are more deeply involved

    Second, I think that it occludes the relationships of power which are at play here. The people being criticised aren’t just ordinary folk bumbling along, trying to do their best. They are people with power and influence, who shape debate and control conversations. It’s deeply misleading to suggest that these conversations are happening on some kind of level playing field, as though this is a conversation taking place between equals. If you are the person with power – whether or not that power is something you have deliberately sought out – you need to recognise the way that power shapes the conversations you have, the way people respond to you, your responsibilities to people with less power than you. And it seems to me like the real problem in the conversations I’ve seen is that powerful white men are entirely unwilling to do that.

  2. KB

    Thanks Marika. Perhaps should have made it clear, though didn’t particularly want to, that I wasn’t especially referencing the spat that Tony Jones got himself into – which I have no interest in defending.
    I take your point about relationships of power, and want to emphasise that in a way as it’s far too often powerful white men who are on both sides, basically masturbating and being unkind to one another, and doing so from what appears to be a place of deeper, historical hurt. Which I find frustrating. The history point is a good one though, because this has been going on a while. I’m glad that you’ve found the level of interaction more positive; personally I’ve found over the past couple of years that things have been more snarky than positive. But perhaps my perception isn’t shared widely.
    To be more specific: Pete can (and perhaps should more) defend himself perfectly well, and I think it’s been good for him to hear the critiques of the position of power that he holds without perhaps being reflective enough on that. And part of what I’ve tried to set up at GB is a positive space to do some serious critique, hopefully in an off-line manner that will allow more nuance and explanation on both sides.
    But the more general point I was trying to get at is that, among white men involved in various aspects of this theological exploration, there’s just way too little good grace and kindness.
    Just to be more clear – I wasn’t at all thinking of any of your contributions over that one issue when I wrote this. It’s been something that’s nudged me for quite a while.

  3. Marika

    Well, now I don’t know whether we’re talking about *any* of the same conversations! But I have left at least some of the conversations I’ve been involved in recently feeling far from convinced that the effort I made to be polite and gentle did anything other than make it easier for people to avoid the issues.

  4. Lyle Taffs

    Hi Kester
    I have spent a good amount of time following the emerging progressive philisophical streams of thought in recent years and have found them to beenlightening and to be viable carriers of a path for the christian faith in our emerging postmodern world. Some times I do find myself though saying, “So?” and a little bored with the whole thing. In recent times I have also thanked God that he has taken me down the path of the contemplative/medatative thinkers like Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault etc. I have found that this complementary stream allows me to ‘get out of my head’ and ‘into my heart’ and to ‘keep my feet on the ground’. I recon this has been a crucial move for me and perhaps similar ventures could be worthwhile for other people. To look closely again (and repeatedly) at ‘old’ words like ‘surrender’, ‘humility’. ‘powerlessness’is a worthwhile practice for anyone – most certainly anyone whose star is in the ascendency and who might find it difficult to keep things in perspective. One of these ‘stars’ has in fact probably captured this idea in this quote. “It is not just ‘what’ you believe that is important but ‘how’ you believe it”.
    Cheers from Down Under mate
    Lyle

  5. KB

    Thanks Marika… I think you may be right… and I’ve found that challenging to mull on… just wondering if online discourse does ever transform. Hence (ironically, I know) this post: http://t.co/M6i7qCkMDF

  6. Stephen Keating

    Given that there have been a few “online interactions” between people in the camps that you mention in your post, it seems to me that your not specifying to what you are referring is misleading for readers, who will quite likely fill in the blank with whatever conversation they are familiar with that happened recently. As such, and I only speak for myself, but this came across as extremely passive-agrressive.