Saturday, November 19, 2011

King of Bullies


I can’t stand bullies. Once, when our daughter Caitlin was in Middle School, I was watching her play soccer and overheard the opposing coach tell his team to “trip those other girls.” (In fact, he said it loud enough so everyone in the stands could hear). Without thinking, I said to Nancy and our other children sitting beside me, “If somebody trips Caitlin I’m going to burn his car.” No one got tripped, and I have never burned anyone’s car, but my violent aversion to bullies remains. Thus, I take great pleasure when, at the end of each episode of “CSI: Miami” or “Criminal Minds”, the depraved bad guys get blown away by Horatio Kane or some other representative of heroic goodness.

I think many people feel a deep-seated urge to see evil brought down and righteousness vindicated for all to see. In the First reading for “Christ the King Sunday”, the Prophet Ezekiel reflects this same concern when he depicts Israel’s vindication in terms of a shepherd who destroys the bullying fat sheep and establishes safe, bully-free pastures for those who had been oppressed.

“Thus says the Lord GOD: I shall judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide… I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy.” (Ezekiel 34: 20/21, 16)

You might say that God is going to punish the false shepherds of Israel by burning their cars.

What’s wrong with this picture?

The summer I turned 18 I went to work for a church agency in Chicago that ran a summer camp for troubled boys. Some of the campers were the same age as me, and some were expert bullies, but I can state with certainty that all of them had been bullied themselves, some by abusive or negligent parents, some by the system, and some just by life. Knowing these boys as I did, it became impossible for me to demonize them. It seemed clear that, if there was to be any healing, any change in the cycle of violence, it would not be the result of any form of revenge or punishment, much less burning someone’s car.

I would say the same thing about the way God works. If Christ is “King” in any sense, it is because he establishes an entirely different sort of kingship. In Ephesians 1:20, we read how “God put [the divine] power to work to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…[and] put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things…”. That sounds like standard kingship language, except for the part about “far above.” I take this as an indication that the “power” of Christ is of an entirely different sort than that which, as Mao Tse Tung put it, “grows out of the barrel of a gun”. Christ is a king who rules from the cross, without armies or police to enforce his decrees. His authority is exercised in forgiving, healing, and blessing, without coercion, and without revenge.

In one way or another, we are all bullies, and therefore have lost all claim to serve as righteous avengers. Christ the “King” appears among us as a “Good” shepherd, seeking out the lost and restoring the scattered flock. When he himself is scapegoated and bullied, Christ the nonviolent Lamb absorbs the violence and renounces vengeance. When the resurrection occurs, it does not result in some vast public vindication of his kingship, but only in confirmation of what his message had been all along: nonviolent discipleship, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation. Christ is a “king” who appears incognito, hungry and in need of food, sick and in need of treatment, homeless and in need of shelter. According to the Gospel reading for Christ the King Sunday, there is only one way to become a citizen of this kingdom, and that is the way of compassion. “What you have done to the least of these, you have done to Christ the King.”

As always, there are ways we can exclude ourselves. We can insist on our prerogative to burn the cars of those we regard as bullies, and then expect that we ourselves be exalted as heroes. We can insist on the standard version of kingship, power, and dominion. It seems clear that God will let us do that, but in the gospels it is even more clear that God will not desist from subverting our violent righteousness, exposing our pretentious rage, and enticing us into a kingdom “prepared before the foundation of the world.”

Saturday, November 12, 2011

“…it is most profound, most provocative, at…the level at which the author comes fully to realize, to face squarely, the dismaying fact that against life’s worst onslaughts, nothing avails, not even art; especially art.”

John Banville, in a review of Blue Nights, by Joan Didion, New York Times Book Review, November 6, 2011.

After my father’s death, Paul Mueller (a friend of my brother’s, and great admirer of Dad’s), wrote a poem, The Burial of Henry Sams, that summoned the full weight and wonder of that occasion for me. This was “art”, and I suppose it did “avail” against that awful onslaught, in much the same way as did the huge song of frogs and insects that drowned out conversation as we sat by the River the night after Dad’s funeral. But what does it mean to “avail”? And does the croaking of frogs constitute “art?” I remember reading somewhere in a Norman Maclean story, “I felt my life turning into a story,” a quotation I have not been able to locate since, so it may be apocryphal, especially since I know exactly where, in A River Runs Through It, Maclean wrote “But life is not art.”

The author James Agee describes how he lived with families of North Alabama sharecroppers as he collaborated (with photographer Walker Evans) on the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In the book Agee agonizes over his self-perceived role as voyeur, as parasite, and provocateur, invading the privacy and presuming upon the hospitality of poverty-stricken hosts, while hijacking their hard-won dignity and pride in the name of “art”. To the extent that a writer, or photographer, or preacher, swoops down onto human events like a buzzard onto road kill, it is parasitical, like any other exploitive enterprise. Perhaps it is this kind of self-scrutiny that John Banville perceived in his review of Joan Didion’s book, the awareness of a moral priority, even a majesty that “life’s worst onslaughts” bring out in human beings overshadowing any attempt to use or exploit it, artistic or otherwise.

In The Gospel of John, Jesus says, “this man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (John 9:3) Does the revelation of God’s healing power “avail” against the enormity and randomness of human suffering? Again, it depends on what is meant by “avail”.

Neither miraculous healing nor artistic commentary can remove the contingency of the world and the helplessness of the human condition. In his poem, Paul Mueller wrote of my mother, “her consolations broke my heart,” but he also knew that her eleven-year widowhood was a time of inconsolable loneliness, a loneliness that prompted her to write as follows…


“I shall but love thee better?

Yes, I do. But must despise the term.

Better is blacker than our ancient car.

Better is sadder than our old dog’s death.

Better is saltier than all my tears.

Better is longer than the longest day,

The longest week, month, year.

Better is wakeful in the nightingale hours.

Better is dreaming of you as you were.

Ah yes I love thee better, bitter, better, now.”

Such words do nothing to remove suffering. For me, the effect is more the opposite: they invite me deep into my mother’s inconsolability, and into her transcendence of it, while it yet abides. Jesus did not heal the Man Born Blind as a stunt, to demonstrate divine power over adversity. Indeed, to do so could serve to deepen alienation and despair, since the obvious question is, “why did God wait so long to act?” Or, even more obvious to me, “What about all the other blind beggars?” Jesus’ healings, in addition to being expressions of compassion, were expressions of solidarity with all those scapegoated and cast out as “sinners” by the pious. In doing so he, symbolically, gouged out his own eyes, forged a bond with every blind beggar and forlorn widow, and foreshadowed his own rejection and scapegoat’s death upon the cross.

So the artist is not a Savior, whose work “avails” to insulate us against life’s worst onslaughts. Not even The Savior is a “Savior” in that sense. The best writing, and preaching, and praying, lifts, expands, and deepens our experience of the world, so that we do feel “our lives turn into stories”, and our hearts swell and break and disappear and resume their beat again, and the night-song of frogs and bugs becomes a choir, and the works of God are revealed in us.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

An Epic Scene

An Epic Scene

Epic: “Pertaining to that kind of narrative poetry which celebrates some heroic personage of history or tradition.” Shorter Oxford Dictionary

An October morning, and I sit in the front yard, throwing a ball for Remi the Dog and waiting for son David to arrive so he could borrow a car. I sit amongst mist that steams up from the ground stained, gold and green, by earthbound trees.

David arrives, mist parting before him like Moses at the Red Sea. “When we drove up,” he says, “the fog was shrouding you, like some epic scene.”

So it’s an epic scene, is it? If so, then Remi has dashed off to chase an epic groundhog, a neighbor’s dog has just taken an epic dump out by the willow tree, and the neighbor himself, oblivious to the offending dog, continues talking at epic volume into his stupid cell phone.

If this scene constitutes an epic, it is because David has pronounced it so, and then driven away to his job tending epic-sized suburban yards. He leaves behind a father, no longer merely dog-sitting in his yard, but now a protagonist in a mighty narrative, at least an Iliad or a Pentateuch. He leaves behind a father now a defender of Stalingrad, a casualty at Gettysburg, a fog-bound witness to the birth of worlds.

He leaves behind a David to his Absalom, a Saul to his Jonathan, a father to an epic son.