Friday, October 12, 2007


Simply start with the first words of Isaiah, and where do you end up?

Let the heavens and the earth give ear,
for it is the Lord who speaks:
I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
An ox knows its owner
and a donkey its master’s stall;
but Israel lacks all knowledge,
my people have no discernment.
You sinful nation, a people weighed down with iniquity,
a race of evildoers, children whose lives are depraved,
who have deserted the Lord,
spurned the Holy One of Israel,
and turned your backs on him!
(Isaiah 1:2-4, REB)

So far, sounds like the preaching of any televangelist railing against the iniquitous Sodom and Gomorrah which they say is America. Hey, that’s not a coincidence!

Your country is desolate, your cities burnt down.
Before your eyes strangers devour your land;
it is as desolate as Sodom after its overthrow.
Only Zion is left,
like a watchman’s shelter in a vineyard,
like a hut in a plot of cucumbers,
like a beleagured city.
Had the Lord of Hosts not left us a few survivors,
we should have become like Sodom,
no better than Gomorrah.
Should I stop here to point out the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was not homosexuality, but being inhospitable to strangers? Isaiah continues on with the metaphor; addressing Jerusalem, he says to them:

Listen to the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom;
Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah:
Your countless sacrifices, what are they to me?, says the Lord
I am sated with whole offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed cattle….
Who has asked you for all this?

To bring me offerings is futile;
The reek of sacrifice is abhorrent to me.

When you hold out your hands in prayer,
I shall turn away.
Though you offer countless prayers,
I shall not listen; there is blood on your hands.
Wash and be clean;
Put away your evil deeds far from my sight;
Cease to do evil, learn to do good.
Pursue justice, guide the oppressed;
Uphold the rights of the fatherless,
And plead the widow’s cause.
And there it is: the problem of Jerusalem, the problem in Israel, is the problem in Thebes at the beginning of “Oedipus Rex.” Injustice is being allowed, and this brings the righteous wrath of punishment. But there is no mystery here, no caprice, no doomed birth foretold which the attempt to escape such a dreadful fate has simply established. There are no innocents suffering for the prophecy given to Jocasta and learned by Oedipus long after the fact. Israel itself, the people themselves, are guilty, and why? Because they have ceased to do good and learned to do evil. And what is this evil? They no longer guide the oppressed; they no longer uphold the cause of the fatherless; they no longer plead the widow’s cause. In sum: they no longer do justice. They are not condemned for their religious practices: like Thebes under Oedipus, they are condemned by their own hand, and God merely pronounces the judgment.

But God is just, and God is fair, so God calls for a discussion, an argument, and offers hope:

Now come, let us argue this out, says the Lord.
Though your sins are scarlet,
They may yet be white as snow;
Though they are dyed crimson,
They may become white as wool.
If you are willing to obey,
You will eat the best that earth yields;
But if you refuse and rebel,
The sword will devour you.
The Lord himself has spoken.
And here, by the way, the comparison to Oedipus and Thebes completely falls down. The fate of Oedipus is set in stone; it must work its inexorable way out. By even trying to avoid the dread prophecy, Oedipus and Jocasta have set it in concrete, and they bear the requisite responsibility for their actions which makes the play a tragedy. But back in Jerusalem, what is the problem? Again, it is not a question of blind obedience to Pecksniffian laws. It is a question of justice:

How the faithful city has played the whore!
Once the home of justice where righteousness dwelt,
She is now inhabited by murderers.
Your silver has turned to dross and your fine liquor is diluted with water.
Your rulers are rebels, associates of thieves;
Every one of them loves a bribe and chases after gifts;
They deny the fatherless their rights,
And the widow’s cause is never heard.
Which causes God to pronounce a change in Israel, but that change will come when God “Makes your judges what once they were, and your counselors like those of old.” And: “Zion will be redeemed by justice and her returning people by righteousness.” The punishment is, in other words, not God’s wrath, but the consequences of the people’s actions. The recovery from those consequences is already promised in the announcement of the verdict. But one more time, for emphasis: the problem is not faithlessness, or a failure to follow some minor Levitican dictate, not some tiny divergence from a rigid and demanding religious law. No, the problem is “They deny the fatherless their rights, and the widow’s cause is never heard.” And the solution will be a reset to re-establish that justice in the land.

Examples of this abound; indeed, justice and injustice are the major themes of the prophets, and the primary reason why Israel was forced into Exile by Babylon (the prophets all write to explain why Babylon was allowed to take Israel captive, and why God would return the children of Abraham to Jerusalem). What it is usually twisted into, though, is a much more human scale agenda, and one that doesn’t require any effort from participants except to identify who is “us” and who is “them.” What it is usually turned into is the Idea, and the Idea is perfect, the Idea is the “Saviour,” and what always fails us is those entrusted to serve and protect the Idea. Sort of like this:

Still, I find Hitchens' piggy-backing on a dead American soldier a rather cheap and easy way to express his penance, such as it is. There's the predictable Orwell/Barcelona reference, which suggests that Hitchens still thinks that the invasion of Iraq was undertaken for "noble" purposes, but was "hijacked by goons and thugs, and where betrayal and squalor negated the courage and sacrifice of those who fought on principle."
from Dennis Perrin

The Idea is always a noble purpose, and its failure is always the result of being “hijacked by goons and thugs,” or men in police or military uniforms. There is always a distance, a remove, between the Idea and those who uphold it, because even for an avowed atheist like Christopher Hitchens, the Idea is holy, and none may touch it lest they sully it, pollute it, degrade it and take from it its essential purity.

It is an alluring notion, because it draws a line between "insiders" and "outsiders," between "Us" and "Them." “We” are the ones who protect the Idea; “they” are the ones who would defile it. The lines shift constantly; those in uniform who should protect the Idea can become “men in military uniforms” who have in fact betrayed our trust; and the line is redrawn to exclude them. “We” stay inside the line, “we” protect the idea; and the circle of insiders becomes smaller and smaller as the Idea fails, again and again, to deliver on its promise. It is never that the Idea fails; it is the supporters of the Idea who are weak.

Bill Moyers ran a story that is merely a variation of this theme: Christian evangelicals who have become Israel's BFF because they think they are playing a substantial role in the coming Apocalypse. The very idea of an Apocalypse is not one widely embraced by Christianity, though you can be forgiven for thinking that it is. Those who espouse it can always produce colorful charts and fearsome pictures and, as Hollywood knows, disaster sells. So it always has been, and always will be, a popular theme. And whenever the noise from that clamor grows too loud, I put on one of my favorite CD's of early vocal music: "1000: A Mass for the End of Time", by Anonymous Four. The subtitle is: "Medieval Chant and Polyphony for the Ascension." It is music chosen to explore "dread of the Last Judgment and fear of the end of the world which pervaded late tenth-century thought." Wars and rumors of wars, indeed.

We've been here before. We'll be here again. But the real allure of apocalyptic vision is for those who think they are "inside" the sacred circle, where they can look with pity or smug satisfaction on those who will find the circle unbroken and against them. It is, at heart, the Idea that matters; the Idea that will finally come, triumphant, establish itself with power and finality, and put an end to all quarrels and troubles by destroying, in blood and fire and doom and horror, those who are not worthy to stand within the charmed circle. The only difference between the tenth century and the twenty-first century, is that the tenth century feared the judgment of God. In the 21st century, those who anticipate, seem to be waiting gleefully for justice to be done against others. They are quite secure justice will pass over them like the Angel of Death in the land of Egypt.

Christianity calls this attitude the sin of pride, and connects it to Original Sin. But that is another matter.

We are talking about the power of the Idea, of the central concept which cannot suffer change or loss or diminishment, which will always be true and always bring salvation, if only its ministers and priests prove themselves worthy of its virtue. It is hard to slip a piece of paper between the fanaticism of Christopher Hitchens and the fanaticism of John Hagee, though they would think themselves bitterest enemies. Both imagine a world which will only be cleansed of evil when enough blood has been spilt, enough tears shed, enough bodies stacked up that even the horses can't move through the sea of ichor that will cover their imagined battlefield. Apocalypse by the hand of God or by the hand of this busy monster manunkind is the same apocalypse aimed toward the same end: Armageddon, Ragnarok, the end of history but the establishment, not of chaos, but of the millenia, the final peace. For both Hagee and Hitchens, peace can only come when all enemies are destroyed. It is, ultimately, a very lonely, very empty, world they long for.

It is also a very human world. All too human.

This comment by Richard Cohen is a prime example of the supremacy of the Idea over reality:

In 2003, this mass murderer [Saddam Hussein] — responsible for millions of dead and some 25 million psychologically crippled Iraqis — is removed in a bungled American-led invasion, undertaken under false pretenses, beset from the beginning by incompetence and hubris on a massive scale, marked by miscalculation on everything from U.S. troop levels to the impact of an American-propelled social revolution that thrust the long suppressed Shia to power. It is certain that things could have been handled better.
Cohen's reasoning here is almost wholly Platonic. The Idea is everything. The Idea is sacrosanct and sacred and always sound. It is the priests of the Idea who let us down, never the Idea itself. Blessed be the name of the Idea!

This is a theology (which is what it is) often espoused in Christianity; but it shouldn't be. It is one Protestantism especially is prone to, as Protestantism doesn't have a central authority that can steer churches away from temporal (immediate) concerns and offer the guidance of the eternal (long-established doctrines). Not that the latter doesn't create its own set of almost intractable problems; but each form (no central authority; strong central authority) creates its own weaknesses.

The first and fundamental problem with this idea is: it is not Biblical. This is not the God of Abraham. This is not the God of Isaac, or Jacob, or even Jesus. God as Idea is the God of the Greeks, of the Hellenists, of those who think reason will finally raise us above our "animal" nature, as if reason were not as human as our emotions. Indeed, the elevation of reason to the source of salvation is just another Idea, another way of abandoning responsibility so that, as in the Dr. Who episode "Blink,” we become creatures of the abstract, devouring potential and depriving our victims of the life they would have lead. It is no coincidence that the creatures in that show are angels; stone angels. As the Doctor says, you can’t kill stone.

Neither can you kill an Idea. But selling all to possess it is the ultimate abstraction. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said:

The Kingdom of God is like this

A trader sold all his merchandise to buy a single pearl

(But how is the Kingdom of God like that?)
John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus (New York: HarperSanFranciscso, 1994, 1st ed.), p. 93

The question Crossan adds at the end is the question of the audience: How is the Kingdom of Heaven like that? But isn’t that what we want the kingdom to be? An idea we can possess, can call our own, and we would give up everything to have it? But if that is the kingdom, and we can obtain it by purchase, any purchase, and if it costs not less than everything, what have we gained? A pearl is only valuable if you are willing to trade it. You can’t eat it. It can’t shelter or clothe you. It can’t even buy you a place in the eternal dwellings, unless you sell it again. If the pearl is the Idea you must have, then once you have purchased it, what good is it to you? The value of a pearl is completely in the abstract. You have sold your entire potential just to have it. So what do you have now?

But if your ideal is in justice, in how the fatherless and the widow (the weakest, the poorest, the least defended) are treated, then your ideal is concrete, not abstract. If your focus is on how others are treated, how society regards them, how they are cared for, then your ideal is justice, not what you possess. If you are paying attention to the lot of others, you aren’t paying attention to the boundary lines. And if you aren’t paying attention to the boundary lines, you are paying attention to people. Which is the beginning of hospitality; which is one of the real purposes of the law, and of society: it’s a way of caring for one another.

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