You are being watched. So what? Let them watch

I have been reading this morning about the recent revelations of U.S. government surveillance, and how it is meant to keep us safe from the bad people of the world. Are any of us really surprised? The outrage is more surprising to me than the actual thing. Who could be so naive in the world to think that what they say and write online or on cell phones would actually be private. We are finished with that part of our life in U.S. history. If you want something to be private you are best to use a pen and paper and then hand deliver that note to who ever you want to see it. Then take the note back and in Ezekiel style eat it.

Whether or not people are looking is not the point, how we react and what we do is the point. Several years ago philosopher Michel Foucault explored the idea of being watched in his reflections on panopticonic prisons. These prisons, built in the round with a central tower made every inmate visible at all times. Even when they were not actually being watched they thought they were. In theory it was meant to create the fear of being seen and cause the inmates to conform to the discipline of the prison.  He wrote in his book Discipline and Punish;

panopticon“The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately. In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions — to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide — it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected.         Visibility is a trap.

The constant visibility of our world is a trap. Honestly the FBI, CIA, NSA, Wal Mart, GE, Facebook, Google… none of them care if you know they are looking. If you know they are looking you will then conform your behavior in ways that they want. If you know they are looking then you will, in many, if not most cases try to please them, and they like that very much. But our goal in life is not to please those who would control us, especially when they want to use that control to use us and others to their ends, and especially when those ends hurt people.  So how do we stand up to this onslaught of visibility how do we free ourselves from the trap.

The only holy answer I have ever found for this trap of visibility is this poem by Wendell Berry in which he exhorts us to not be ashamed. Shame is the felling we are meant to feel when others cast their judgments on us or when we act out of conformity to their norms. 608px-Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-27-_-_Expulsion_of_the_Money-changers_from_the_TempleJesus faced this criticism many times, basically being told that he should be ashamed to eat with sinners, or heal on the Sabbath, or include the exile in the feast or to show mercy or love to the outsider. But instead of trying to hide and argue that the religious authorities should not be watching him, he turned the table (once literally) and said in essence “I will not be ashamed of what I am doing” Jesus then went on to say,  it is those who try to force the conformity in the first place that should be ashamed, those who seek profit without principle and sacrifice human dignity to satisfy their own greed. Those who accept the widows mite and the lepers sacrifice all the while keeping them from the temple itself.

Shame is used to control all those captured in the trap of visibility so the answer is quite basic;

Do Not Be Ashamed

You will be walking some night

in the comfortable dark of your yard

and suddenly a great light will shine

round about you, and behind you

will be a wall you never saw before.

It will be clear to you suddenly

that you were about to escape,

and that you are guilty: you misread

the complex instructions, you are not

a member, you lost your card

or never had one. And you will know

that they have been there all along,

their eyes on your letters and books,

their hands in your pockets,

their ears wired to your bed.

Though you have done nothing shameful,

they will want you to be ashamed.

They will want you to kneel and weep

and say you should have been like them.

And once you say you are ashamed,

reading the page they hold out to you,

then such light as you have made

in your history will leave you.

They will no longer need to pursue you.

You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.

They will not forgive you.

There is no power against them.

It is only candor that is aloof from them,

only an inward clarity, unashamed,

that they cannot reach. Be ready.

When their light has picked you out

and their questions are asked, say to them:

“I am not ashamed.” A sure horizon

will come around you. The heron will begin

his evening flight from the hilltop.

-Wendell Berry

About fatherjeremy

I am a priest in the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Oregon. I am currently the rector of Christ Church, Lake Oswego, OR
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