Mercy May Rejoice Upon The Recession of Justice
A bit more than a decade ago a feature length film that I had made came out in theaters after a few years in production. It was a feature length documentary that I had conceived of, written the treatment for, and co-produced, about the origins of poverty and how it persists in a world with so much wealth and how despite the best efforts to reduce poverty that very same poverty would grow. It was called “The End of Poverty?: Think Again.” If you feel like being gutpunched by a documentary it is easily found on YouTube. For an issue based documentary it did modestly well. It had two theatrical releases, I was invited to speak at the UN four times about the issues in the film and I toured with the film for a few years giving talk backs at festivals and theaters and activist screenings and schools. The countries we went to were Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela, Kenya, and Tanzania. But we could have picked many others.
Our first screening at the UN was sponsored by the Bolivian Mission and Embassy to the UN. The whole staff of the mission was there but they had also brought in visiting representatives and activists who were residents of El Alto, Bolivia to the screening and the meetings around it. It was the autumn of 2009 and the rumblings of the bank collapses of 2008 were still very much playing in the conversations of people, really anywhere, but certainly at a screening of a film about poverty.
Before the screening there was a small circle of people chatting and I was among them and one person earnestly asked one of the El Alto activists if the recession was impacting them at all in Bolivia. The activist said ‘Well, we have heard of it but life is pretty much the same for us for now. We are still quite poor.”
Though I knew the answer to the question before it was answered the response still struck me in my chest. It had a mixture of kindness, exhaustion, resignation, sadness, and anger in it while all being spoken quite matter of factly. While so many in the US and Europe were suffering and struggling during that time so many poor people not in the US just found their lives untouched by the added misery. And certainly it goes the other way. There were no lack of rich people who were also completely untouched by that recession.
Recession is a word that is, understandably, on the lips of many people right now. And hearing it so much in the last few weeks brought that experience of mine to mind and the ache that came with knowing that recessions, while doling out much misery, are not universal things. Which made me wonder about the word ‘recession’ and if a more rooted and rounded understanding of the word might offer into new insight.
Now before I start I’d say this…I write this wondering not to minimize the economic hardships that are happening and likely still to come for anyone reading this newsletter. I’m impacted too. Primal Derma is absolutely financially impacted by these days. I’m doing all I can to keep this little and blessed venture going. Thank you for your support in this regard. And this wondering is not intended to just get some breezy and bypassing understanding of the word so that I (or you) don’t need to feel the proper hurt of the word in action. My prayer is that this inquiry is additive to our understanding of the word and what it evokes. And that I can, fingers crossed, have this additive understanding testify, in a small way, for the virtue and value that I try to have Primal Derma stand up to. Lets see!
That said, the word ‘recession’ as we commonly hear it used in terms of a decline in economic activity is very recent. It was used by the editorial board of The Economist in their November 2nd edition, just a few weeks after The Great Crash of 1929.
“The material prosperity of the United States is too firmly based, in our opinion, for a revival in industrial activity — even if we have to face an immediate recession of some magnitude — to be long delayed.”
Not an impressive sentence in meaning or beauty but that was the birth of the term as an economic one. But what did it mean before then?
I love old dictionaries because they capture a moment of a cultures understanding and relationship with a word and often have great language in their definitions and usages. In North America the gold standard for old dictionaries, in my opinion, is the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language by the famous Noah Webster.
That dictionary defines ‘recession’ as:
The act of receding or withdrawing, as from a place, a claim, or a demand. “Mercy may rejoice upon the recession of justice.” – Rev. Jeremy Taylor
The act of ceding back; restoration; repeated cession; as, the recession of conquered territory to its former sovereign
This notion of restoration was a new facet of the word for me and also of this notion of a kind of undoing of a conquered place or space.
But the word ‘recession’ has it’s own etymology going back to the 1640. That Rev. Jeremy Taylor quote about mercy and the recession of justice mentioned before is among the very earliest usages of the word in English. And it meant ‘a going back, the act of receding.’ The English was plucked directly from French (same spelling and meaning) which came from the Latin recessionem ‘a going back.’
The word has two main constituent parts
The ‘re’ and the ‘cession’
Lets do the second part first. ‘Cession’ comes from the Latin verb ‘cedere’ which means ‘to go back or to fall back, to withdraw, to depart, or to retire.’
The ‘re’ is a word-forming element again from Latin meaning ‘back to the original place; again, anew, once more,’ also with the sense of undoing what was once done’
And so four kin words (though there are others) that are evoked by looking at the components are the words ‘recess’, ‘cessation,’ and ‘cede’ and ergo ‘recede’.
Using that 1828 dictionary again you’d find ‘recess’ having that sense of moving back and retreating but also of seclusion and privacy like the recess of a jury. Also recess has the sense of suspension of procedures as in ‘this court is now in recess.’
Cessation reads: A ceasing of discontinuance, as of action, whether temporary or final; a stop; as, a cessation of the war. The temporary cessation of the papal iniquities. A cessation of arms, an armistice, or truce, agreed to by the commanders of armies, to give time for a capitulation, or for other purposes.
Cede has this sense of surrendering a conquered something; fortress, city, area, by treaty. But also to grant.
I think all of these words with their histories and etymologies and definitions from older dictionaries inform a new facet to the word ‘recession’ for me. Maybe for you to. All these words have a sense of an ending to conflict and onslaughts and claims with some kind of sanative or restful end. And then there is Taylor’s connection of mercy to the recession of justice.
All this together might then give us a poetically rendered new facet to include in our understanding of recession as: that ending of an onslaught of, and conflict on, a place that induces a restorative solitude to how it once may have been before and maybe even mercy might arise if justice has been eluded.
If this understanding has a place then it might be said that recession has salutary effect on the living world where we have been savaging it and extracting from it without any sense of limit. All the clearing of canals and skies and turtles nesting in peace and suddenly more quiet oceans which make for easier migrations for whales and all other manner of the natural world responding to our cessations, to our recession.
May it be that we learn to approach a less bellicose economy upon the living earth that doesn’t require these kinds of recessions that were spoken of in these old books. That our economy to be might be big enough to support us but small enough to not extract beyond all limit. Could less be a measure?
Here at Primal Derma we are trying to walk as lightly as we can and with as much praise as we can muster for all the constituents of our balm and the limits therein.
May it be that you can gather such items with similar approaches to your door soon enough.
Thanks for your ongoing support. I’m bent by my fortune to have you as supporters..