This photograph was taken by Sebastiao Salgado at a gold mine in Brazil. I first saw it in a room at the University I attend. As an idealistic and aspiring academic I felt moved by the raw power of the worker as he resisted the guard. Ever since then I have had a copy of this picture in my study areas. It reminds me that my life is not just about doing good, but that I have a moral duty to alleviate as much suffering in this world as I can. It reminds me that sometimes I need to resist those in power to protect the weak. I believe that is part of the heritage that Christ has given us.
In this regard I was recently provoked to thought by something Egon Friedell has said about the Christian tradition. I had never heard of Egon Friedell, until reading a book by Clive James entitled ‘Cultural Amnesia’ (which I whole-heartedly recommend), but I think I really like him. James describes him as the ‘polymath’s polymath’. Yet, Friedell was not merely a book-worm but was also one of the most famous cabaret artist’s of his day in a city (Vienna) full of performers. Before discussing his ideas I wanted to share one tid-bit from his life which was (oddly) inspiring for me:
‘On the day of the AnschluB in 1938, Friedell saw the storm troopers marching down the street, on their way to the building in which he had his apartment full of books. He was only a few floors up but it was high enough to do the job. On his way out of the window he called a warning, in case his falling body hit an innocent passer-by.’
His magnum opus ‘Cultural History of the Modern Age’ contains this line: ‘Mankind in the Christian Era possesses one huge advantage over the ancients: a bad conscience’. Now it seems that neither James nor Friedell were Christians but they recognised something that the world had been given because of Christianity. In James’ words, ‘When Friedell talked about a bad conscience, he meant the mind that was capable of seeing that might and right were not the same thing’.
One challenge with making this distinction is discerning it amidst the normalising power of culture. Seeing oppression and pain inflicted by those in power is difficult when those causing such situations are the same people we revere or respect; it is harder still is to resist it. ‘Most men’ James notes ‘bend with the breeze: which is to say, they go with the prevailing power. But a few do not. With or without Christ’s help, they grow a bad conscience. Thank God for that.’
Yet, what haunts me more is that, in the words Albert Camus, ‘I [find] that there [are] sweet dreams of oppression within me’. I really believe that ‘it is the nature and disposition of almost all men… to exercise unrighteous dominion’ (D&C 121:39); and this includes me. Friedell’s ‘bad conscience’ must work inward as much as it flows outward; I must check myself against the tendencies that I have to use any ‘perceived’ authority I might have to justify my own prejudices. James’ oppressive breeze blows both from within and from without.
The last century saw many idealistic and bright people bend with that breeze, and yet, within the Christian heritage is the ‘bad conscience’, which urges us to resist oppressive behaviour, even from ourselves. I wonder whether I have been true to my tradition. I wonder whether I have stood up for the down-trodden and the out-cast. I wonder whether my respect for authority has led me to turn a blind-eye to unrighteous dominion (wherever that is found). I hope I can be rigid in one of the few senses I see as important; that I will never concede to view that power leads inevitably to truth.