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Who puts a dead dog in a suitcase?

I watched in spellbound horror as the fragile thread by which this turbulent, treacherous, tormented, temporal world precariously dangles ... -snapped- ... and the whole thing came crashing down in a pandemonium of light, glitter, smoke, leopard print, automatic gun-fire, luggage, canine skeletons, and virtuosic violining.

And then we went to Wagamama's.

Kneehigh theatre company's Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and Other Love Songs) [1] is an immense tragicomic rollercoaster of satirical mayhem, beautifully crafted with a searing, seamlessly genre-fusing score (dubstep, ska, metal, classical, you name it), superb musical and theatrical performances, and all manner of impressive choreography, puppetry and set work. It charts the fate of a town embroiled in the self-serving schemes of wealthy pilchard magnate Peachum and his malevolent genius of a wife (an hilarious stage turn by scene-stealer Rina Fatania). Not that the inhabitants themselves are innocent victims -- most will stoop pretty low to protect their own interests or to make an "easy buck". There's murder, polygamy, trickery, bribery, irresponsible paternity, all manner of grotesque debauchery, police corruption and brutality. Only the appalled and grieving Mrs. Goodman (wife of the assassinated mayor) dares to take a resolute stand for truth and justice, exhorting the townsfolk to recognise and resist the evil influences in their midst. After all, she urges them, they have a choice (a recurring theme). The crowds are by no means impervious to her entreaties ... but as soon as they begin to rally round her, and she emerges a legitimate threat, she's framed for malfeasance and jailed. Mr. and Mrs. Peachum (representing, respectively, capitalism and the shadowy sinister forces behind it?) hold all the cards. The game is rigged.

The chaos escalates exquisitely throughout the second half: all voices of truth are silenced; all innocence tainted; all forces for good frustrated. Evil triumphs and then even the workers of evil are brought to nothing. "God made man; man made hell" they chant. "Only at the end of the road do we see we have nowhere to go" ... “The tragic truth is there’s no revolution, just mankind wandering lost in the cold” ... "Bring it all down and start again". And they do. Well, they do the 'bringing down' bit, at least. And it makes for quite a finale.

"I do like to be overwhelmed at the theatre", I always say. By which I mean I like a spectacle ... I like to be made to forget to be bored ... If I'm not swept away I fall to peering around for a visible watch face and thinking of all the other things I could be doing with my time. Well, Dead Dog in a Suitcase achieved that, and some. But it overwhelmed me in other, less comfortable ways ... it overwhelmed me with the insanity, the brokenness, the desperation of it all. And it was brave enough to leave it there; it didn't pretend that if only we all stood up to evil, took those choices Mrs. Goodman was so keen to remind us of, then everything would be OK. She and those who followed her example just got nowhere slightly faster and more miserably than the ones that didn't ...

Another thing that left me similarly overwhelmed was a book I read recently: Debt: The First 5000 Years by Professor of Anthropology David Graeber. It was ... enlightening. In ways I wasn't really wanting to be enlightened. By Graeber's reasoning, the history of debt and the history of money are one and the same. And it is a history absolutely crammed with violence, slavery, injustice, sexual exploitation ... unpleasant realities that seem very distant from the cosy, respectable, middle-class lives that I and most of my (mostly imaginary) readers are (I imagine) living. But realities which nonetheless persist in the present -- and for larger portions of the world than that which shares my privileged experience. And money ... money is the sanitised front that shields us from those realities -- enables us to carry on contentedly oblivious to the real costs of privilege and comfort.
... a debt, unlike any other form of obligation, can be precisely quantified. This allows debts to become simple, cold, and impersonal -- which, in turn, allows them to be transferable. [...] if one owes forty thousand dollars at 12-percent interest, it doesn’t really matter who the creditor is; neither does either of the two parties have to think much about what the other party needs, wants, is capable of doing -- as they certainly would if what was owed was a favor, or respect, or gratitude. One does not need to calculate the human effects; one need only calculate principal, balances, penalties, and rates of interest. If you end up having to abandon your home and wander in other provinces, if your daughter ends up in a mining camp working as a prostitute, well, that’s unfortunate, but incidental to the creditor. Money is money, and a deal’s a deal. From this perspective, the crucial factor, and a topic that will be explored at length in these pages, is money’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic -- and by doing so, to justify things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene. (David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, 2011)
I guess I've always been kinda resigned to capitalism. I mean, yeah, it's not great ... but letting things happen naturally (y'know, self-regulating market forces and all that) beats trying to enforce an ideal -- which only ever seems to lead to power plays, violence, and utter distortion of said ideal. I kinda lumped it in with democracy, and applied Churchill's famous appraisal:
Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. (Winston Churchill, Speech in the House of Commons, 11 November 1947)
  • I begin to see how naive I was approximating capitalism with democracy. Corporations have increasing amounts of power; one wonders how much democracy is left after measures like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership ... aargh.
  • Graeber's anthropological analysis calls into question the academic theory behind 'market forces'; it seems the field of economics is built on assumptions that simply aren't played out in history (e.g. there is no evidence, he claims, that the barter economies said to pre-date money actually existed). Besides, 'market forces' haven't even succeeded in keeping markets healthy, let alone meeting human needs in a fair and compassionate manner.
  • Even capitalism 'working' is never, I reluctantly realise, going to 'work' universally: "It would appear that capitalism, as a system, simply cannot extend such a deal to everyone. Quite possibly it wouldn't even remain viable if all its workers were free wage labourers [...] The result might be termed a crisis of inclusion." (David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, 2011)
  • The violence underpinning the system in its emergence hasn't gone away ... "the fact that it [the US] can, at will, drop bombs with only a few hours’ notice, at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet. No other government has ever had anything remotely like this sort of capacity. In fact, a case could well be made that it is this very power that holds the entire world monetary system, organized around the dollar, together." (David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, 2011) 
I'm ok with people being rich -- even ridiculously rich, if they like that sort of thing. But extreme poverty and social disenfranchisement at the other end of the spectrum ... that's clearly not ok. My cursory economic education left me, for many years, confident that the latter was not the inevitable consequence of the same forces producing the former; that, in fact, a healthy (free market capitalist) economy which seems to overly-protect the interests at the top is actually the best solution we can come up with to solve the problems at the bottom. "A rising tide lifts all boats," you might say. Now I'm not so sure. As Nish Kumar brilliantly observed on The Now Show just the other night (Episode 6, Series 44), "a rising tide" is all very well, but what if you're one of the many unfortunates who don't have a boat to begin with?

It's all starting to look horribly like the lousy Mr. Peachum with the evil Mrs. Peachum lurking in the shadows. The game really is rigged ... And it's escalating to crisis point ...

The solution? Graeber's argument centres around international and consumer debt cancellation, similar to the Biblical principle of jubilee (I can't do it justice here, go read the book) but essentially he does a Mrs. Goodman: "To begin to free ourselves, the first thing we need to do is to see ourselves again as historical actors, as people who can make a difference in the course of world events." We're afraid to even imagine anything other than capitalism -- all alternatives appear inevitably worse -- but "if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way." We have to exercise our power to choose.

Of course, he's right (generally speaking, that is; I question some of his particulars). And yet ... hmmm. Are we all ... all ... about to agree on a radically transformational new way of 'doing' money, politics, life ...? Because that's what it'd take, basically. This isn't something that can be imposed by an ideological few on the reluctant masses -- we know too well what happens when that happens. And under the current system, individuals attempting to be radically transformational are mostly just gonna lose out themselves and get crushed and silenced, like Mrs. Goodman and the other well-meaning but powerless citizens in the play.

It's easy to become completely, overwhelmingly demoralised at this point. To resolve to simply play the game quietly ... hang on in there ... do all we can to avoid being numbered with the losing majority. After all, everyone else is ... and there is no earthly hope in withstanding.

No earthly hope.

But according to Jesus there is another kingdom, somehow here already and yet still to come ... a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36-38), in which it is the very losers of this world who are most well off, most blessed: the poorthe sorrowful, the hungry; those who opt for peace, refusing to fight even when it is the only way to defend their rights, acquire their needs; those who show mercy, choosing not to exercise their power to exact what is owed them; those who willingly suffer rather than compromise on what is right and good; those who live surrounded by depravity and yet remain untainted. And even as they watch themselves losing the game that is rigged against them from the outset they rejoice, because they are citizens of another kingdom than the one which has mercilessly disenfranchised them. (Please don't blindly trust my paraphrase/interpretation; see Matthew 5:2-12 and Luke 6:20-23).

How is this possible? Can anything really begin to make up for missing out on all that is valued and desired by humankind -- for an existence of being trampled on, scorned and despised? The Beatitudes can sound a lot like platitudes ...

There's been various explanations offered for precisely how and why the attributes that Jesus lists amount to 'blessedness'. To me, they read as a description of the people who -- some through choice, others through circumstance beyond their choice -- have no hope, no investment in this bleak and broken world. They have nothing for it but to throw themselves on the mercies of God. Whether by defiance or by inability, they're not competing by this world's rules, not plundering it for their own gain, not fighting for their position and protection in it. As such, they're just about as far from 'winning' by worldly standards as it is possible to be. And yet, they're blessed already because they have not "forfeited themselves" (cf Luke 9:25). They're blessed because they do not belong to (as DDIAS put it) the "hell on earth", the "pit" that we have dug. They're blessed because they have nothing to lose when it is finally dismantled: when it all gets turned upside-down, they're the ones who'll be standing on their feet.

And, according to the New Testament, it will be dismantled, turned upside down -- "the world is passing away along with its desires" (1 John 2:17a; cf. 1 Corinthians 7:31b); "the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed." (2 Peter 3:10) But the Christian hope is that, unlike the impressively bleak finale of the play, there will be something left, and there will be a restoration ...
At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:26-29)
New creation: precisely the sort of "bring it all down and start again" solution that DDIAS hinted was needed but dared not imagine possible. It still sounds crazily optimistically mind-boggling to me, and I've had years of following Jesus to get used to the idea! But, as Paul emphasises in 1 Corinthians 15, faith in Christ doesn't actually make sense without that hope -- and the resurrection of Jesus is as sure a basis for it as one could imagine. With that in mind, "blessed are the [insert losers here]" starts to sound far less an empty motto, more a profoundly, radically transformational reality ... one which emboldens me (although I'm terrified too, and I haven't honestly figured out quite how) to likewise embrace daily defeat for the sake of "the kingdom that cannot be shaken" ...

[1] Playing at the Bristol Old Vic until 25th October...

[Thumbnail image cc from Lasse C on Flickr]