World Youth Day and three million dissenters

  • August 8, 2013

It is both proper and gratifying to see the success of World Youth Day in Rio as a massive, marvelous “yes” to Christian faith.

Indeed, when upwards of three million individuals show up in one place at one time to worship Christ, we can be forgiven for reveling in their presence as a sign of assent to the Church and the Gospel.

Yet I cannot help wondering whether there is equal benefit in affirming it as an important gesture of dissent as much as assent. Dissent, I mean, as a political, social and cultural act. Dissent as a claim, a stance, of individual freedom.

We have become accustomed, even conditioned, to think of dissent as aligned with negativity, complaint, truculence, disruption and, in far too many cases, violence. But it need not be any of these things. It could as rightly be three million people coming together to proclaim the Gospel in spite of the scorn of the wider culture. It could, for that matter, be three million people coming together to publicly profess Jesus Christ in a political environment that considers them, at best, outliers.

It could be — I’m arguing it is — the act of faith done for itself, of course, but also with consciousness that it allows the faithful to stop what Václav Havel called “living within the lie” of our dominant political, cultural or social ethos.

In his magnificent 1978 essay, Power to the Powerless, Havel makes the critical point that it is not necessary to believe dominant lies in order to live within them. On the contrary, it is a condition of life in what he calls “post-totalitarian dictatorship” that people fully understand what they are being told is utterly false. Even so, he writes, they make the human calculation that the costs of dissent may be unbearable while the benefits of acquiescence to the lie will assure their existence.

“Individuals need not believe all (the lies), but they must behave as though they (do), or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them,” Havel writes. “They must live within a lie. . . It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”

He uses the illustration of a shopkeeper who puts a “workers of the world unite” sign in his store window. It is not in the shopkeeper’s interest to have the workers of the world unite. He may be utterly indifferent to whether they unite or not. But he must live within the lie and he must take care that no one notices he doesn’t care. He must tell a lie so no one suspects he thinks it’s a lie.

Havel was, of course, writing directly about the post-totalitarian dictatorship of the Soviet Bloc, which seemed so systemically impregnable despite being barely a decade from collapse. Yet he makes clear that though the immediate conditions addressed in Power to the Powerless were those of post- Prague Spring Czechoslovakia, he is talking about the susceptibility of everyone to the life of the lie. The essay contains explicit warnings about the West’s vulnerability to a consumer-friendly version of post-totalitarian delusion.

Having dissected the post-totalitarian regime, Havel argues overcoming it is dependent on small, even isolated, acts of truth-telling that signal implacable dissent from living within the lie.

“Every free expression of life indirectly threatens the post-totalitarian system politically, including forms of expression to which, in other social systems, no one would attribute any potential political significance, not to mention explosive power,” he writes.

What free expression of life could be a more explosive dissent from the political, social and cultural lies we live within today than saying out loud “I believe in God, the Father Almighty and in Jesus Christ….”?

What small, personal, even isolated, gesture could speak the truth of our dissent more powerfully than simply making the Sign of the Cross everywhere we can?

Whether three million or one, we say no the lie by saying yes to the truth and the freedom of our faith.

(Stockland is the Director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal in Montreal.)

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