Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Old Rocky Face, look forth!

You know, it's just easier to be against something:

Since the beginning of the Obama presidency liberals and progressives have demonstrated little political passion compared to those on the right. Once the election was over, once a black man was elected president, once the Democrats controlled Congress, liberals and progressives declared victory - and left the game.
And most of the push for Obama was to cleanse the Augean stables of what the Bush Administration left behind. When it turned out Obama wasn't Hercules, and that the task wouldn't be as simple as re-routing a river, everybody got bored and dissatisfied and then got mad and decided to get even. Which isn't to say everything Obama has done has been ideal or perfect, but if you expect politicians to always pander to your preferences and always to solve your preferred problems, then you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

But getting back to being against something:

Surely, that could be seen in last summer's rage over health care, where in public forums across the country the right showed up in huge numbers -- irate, strident, and full of wrath. If you supported health-care they shouted you down, accused you of favoring socialized medicine (never mind that many of the accusers were on Medicare), said you were Marxists or communists -- or worse.

Their mantra was unrelenting, "We want our country back!" they yelled.
What they want, of course, is what Tom Tancredo wants: they want that "other" out of their White House. "Other" now being the preferred term for the evil that dare not speak its name. I prefer "other" be a term of art in the phenomenology of Emmanuel Levinas, because "other" in this context is simply a euphemism for plain old American racism:

"I remember a little thing, like Ms. Obama saying she didn't want any Christian artifacts in the White House during Christmas time," Tancredo said. Another problem, Tancredo said, is "hosting Ramadan events there."

Tancredo's recitation of the urban myth about Michelle Obama disdaining Christmas is just one of several instance of Tancredo ascribing an otherness to the Obamas.
Let me pause to say it again, for emphasis: Tom Tancredo is not "ascribing an otherness to the Obamas." He's a racist: plain and simple. He's upset because a black family lives in the White House. End of discussion. Everything else he says about the Obamas only makes sense in that context. And racism stirs passions and ignites groups of people to action because it gives you something to be against. It also underscores that "they" lost, and now "they" want to do something about it, much as progressives and liberals felt for 8 years of the Bush Administration. And, of course, "they" learned their tactics from "us:"

In the 60s and 70s, having finally achieved their principal objectives, civil rights as the rule of law, the end of the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon out of office and disgraced, liberals were spent, emotions drained, energy gone. There were no more rivers to cross or mountains to climb. Everest, K-2, and Annapurna were conquered. Liberalism was victorious. Those who believed in its cause, which they believed to be moral and just, turned to other pursuits.

A large political vacuum was created, but it didn't last. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority arose -- and American politics were forever changed.

What was Falwell's inspiration?

He said he watched William Sloane Coffin Jr., the Berrigan brothers, and other Christian clergy march against the war in Vietnam and decided if they could march against a war he could march for the rights of the unborn. Coffin, the Berrigans and others left the parade. Falwell and Robertson and Dobson took their place.
Civil rights, as I recall, wasn't so much achieved, as the air finally ran out of the balloon with Dr. King's death. It was pretty much left to society to catch up to the vision Dr. King (and many, many others) had espoused. The public struggle had been going on for almost 2 decades at that point; the energy needed to sustain it was finally over. Vietnam ended, too, and Nixon left office in disgrace before that: two "enemies" fallen. And where did Falwell get his inspiration? From the opposition to government and war led by the Beriggan Brothers and William Sloane Coffin and others. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Antipathy is all too human, and it is all to easily inspired. Take Sarah Palin, for example:

"It's just a peculiar thing, but she does, as I found out in May, she presses a button and what comes back is hate," he said. "The people who respond when she complains about something are just so filled with hate. I got some of the ugliest, most vile e-mails directed at me, my grandchildren, my children, my wife – just ugly, ugly stuff."

As for his interviews, most people he approached in Palin's hometown were willing to speak, but he said there was what he calls an "undercurrent of fear."

"People – I don't know if they're afraid of shadows or whether there's something real there – she's no longer in a position of governmental influence but there are people up there who are scared to death to talk because if Sarah ever found out they talked, oh, something terrible would happen to them," he said.
Not coincidentally, you get much the same thing from the Vanity Fair profile about her. Then again, her whole premise seems to be fear and animosity. "Mama Grizzlies." "Don't retreat, reload." And so on. When she isn't fanning the flames of animosity and opposition, she's looking for enemies to be outraged by. Need I say this kind of fear of strangers is as American as neighborliness and friendly welcomes?

It's almost cyclical, this sense of opposition and victory and disengagement and new opposition. Yeats would describe it as the gyres, interlocking cones along which history moved, back and forth. Hegel, in popular culture anyway, would call it thesis and antithesis and synthesis, which eventually gives rise to a new antithesis, sparking another round of opposition. Lost in the usual understanding of Hegel's theory is that the two sides remain in existence, only their power over events swings back and forth, like some mad pendulum. The names, ultimately, change, the uniforms may even be different: but the players remain essentially the same. If the best are full of doubt and the worst are full of passionate intensity, it seems more and more to depend on which side you are on, as to which are best and which are worst. The whole thing comes to seem completely pointless and mad.

I've seen the baseless accusation flung, more than once, that religion is simply a human attempt to defy death, or to explain suffering, or to overcome some problem of individual existence (we all die, but not all of us at once). It's a reductio ad absurdum based on the same ignorance it accuses religion generally of sustaining. One of the ignored lessons of Christianity, though, one of the lessons of the Hebrew Scriptures that endures without let throughout the New Testament, from the first word of Mark to the last word of the Revelation, is that the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jesus, is a God intimately involved in history. We've distorted that intimacy, especially since the Romantic period, into individual intimacy: a God who is involved in the best possible outcome for each of our individual lives, a kind of child's imagining of what the world of adulthood is like, as foolish and unrealistic as the child who imagines what is beneath her skin is simply solid flesh, rather than the complex mass of nerve and bone and muscle, ligament, tendon, organs, and connective tissues of all description. A world that is so simple that God could order each individual's life to be perfect for that person is a world so narcissistic and narrow I wouldn't want to live in, couldn't imagine finding happiness in it. What Christianity is supposed to proclaim is a God involved in human history, and that is a complex and difficult proclamation indeed.

It is not, for starters, a proclamation that God is moving all events, whether we can know it or not, toward good, toward a purpose, toward a moment when all eyes will see and all hearts will open and finally humanity will have "evolved" to a point to be ready to accept the God who comes leveling mountains and raising valleys so no human eye can miss the sight. Again, to take that literally would mean the surface of the earth would have to be peeled off like an orange, and late out flat as if there were a planet-sized table top arranged for the occasion. It's a metaphor in Isaiah's text, not a prediction of apocalypse or, if you prefer, Ragnorok. To take literally that God is organizing every last event for good, is to imagine a God who is a monster for letting so much evil happen consequent upon good finally being produced. It is to argue for a God for whom the ends do justify the means, and that is a perverse doctrine indeed. The kerygma that God is involved in human history is a difficult and complex one, and it is not one to be dismissed as a "mystery," either. There is a reason "Israel" means "Struggles with God," and it is better that we understand that struggle is an inheritance from Christianity's Jewish ancestry, not a resolution brought about by the Pauline declaration of the nature of the Christ.

We have to move past, in other words, the idea that the only meaning in life is found in opposition, and the only purpose of struggle is to achieve a resolution. Because in that very limited sense the explanation of Hegel is right, and every synthesis (resolution) simply leads to a new antithesis. The players never leave the field, they simply change jerseys. If we are looking for a resolution, or even a meaning in opposition, we will be eternally frustrated. Part of the problem is that in the Jewish and Christian understanding, it is the nature of God to be "Other," and that otherness prompts struggle. But that struggle is relationship, the relationship of created to Creator. It is not the resolution that is meaningful, it is the struggle that is meaningful.

At this point a sound Niebuhrian doctrine would point out to me that I'm still wishing for the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging, when all I'm ever going to get is the Church of Meaning and Belonging, and I might as well accept the limitation. Between the Idea and the Reality Falls the Shadow, and all that. But then that's a perfect example of the struggle, isn't it? If I demand all or nothing, if I demand a resolution to this struggle or I won't engage it any longer, then I'm denying the central truth I'm trying to proclaim. So let me intrude this thought, instead. The analysis is of Genesis 22, the akedeh, the binding of Isaac by Abraham:

Many commentators focus on the way that Abraham's faith is tested when God asks him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Abraham gets to the very moment of killing his son before being stopped by an angel. The school of religious thought that celebrates blind faith hails Abraham for his willingness to put obedience to God ahead of filial love.

But there is another, very different lesson that we can draw from the juxtaposition of Genesis 22 with the reading from the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Genesis 21. The key verse is Genesis 22:2. It gets translated as God saying to Abraham: "Take your son, your only [yechidcha] son, the one that you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah and offer him up there as a sacrifice."

"Only son"? We know that Abraham had another son named Ishmael. He was born out of the union with his handmaiden, Hagar. It is only when Sarah gives birth to Isaac in her old age that Ishmael loses standing in the family. This happens when Sarah insists to Abraham that Hagar and Ishmael be banished from the household, all of which is recounted in Genesis 21. Abraham does not question God's command to sacrifice Isaac. Nor does he question Sarah's command to banish Hagar and Ishmael. What's to admire?

In Genesis 22:2 it is hard to accept that God thinks Abraham has only one son. In the previous chapter, God appears to a desperate Hagar, who expects to die in the wilderness with her son. God shows Hagar a well of water and she picks up her son from the ground and gives him drink. At that moment, God promises to make of Ishmael a great nation. Abraham is thus seen as the father of two great nations, the Jews, through Isaac, and the Arabs, through Ishmael.

Thus yechidcha, "your only son" in Genesis 22:2, must be God's description of Abraham's privileging Isaac over Ishmael. This reading is supported by the second part of the sentence, which specifies: "the son that you love."

Perhaps God is not testing Abraham's faith as much as he wants him to re-visit his behavior towards Ishmael. The same Abraham who pleaded to save the lives of sinners in Sodom and Gomorrah cast his first son into the wilderness at the behest of Sarah without a second thought. Now God wants Abraham to experience the near loss of the son he favored in the hope that he can stir compassion in him for the son he cast out.
The story is about, the rabbi says, the theology of scarcity, v. the theology of abundance:

It would be easy for us to make Sarah the villain here, as it is her jealousy that leads to Abraham's heartless act. But, in fact, we are all subject to the impulse that drives Sarah. We believe that love is a limited resource. If X enjoys love, favor or affection, then there is not enough for me. I thus need to either compete with X, cast aspersions on X's reputation by speaking ill of him or her, or eliminate him or her. We do this in our families, in our work places, in our congregations and in our politics.
Now, there is a touch of what I call "vulture theology" in the ending of Rabbi Schwartz commentary, although the insight is true:

We should not have to come to the verge of losing that which is most precious to us in order to see this truth.
As Joni Mitchell would say: "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." If I call it "vulture theology," it's because I've seen pastors use this kind of "you'll need the church when all else fails, you'll need us when you've lost everything and we're still here" approach to justify the church's existence (when all other justifications fail, of course), so the verge of losing everything as a theological revelation is a dangerous one. Not in this circumstance, however; not if we understand it correctly.

"Against" is all about scarcity. There is only so much goodwill to go around, so much love, so much money, so much of...well, whatever. What little there is must be hoarded, held onto, protected, encircled, surrounded, hidden, denied to others, kept for us. "Against" is easier. "For" is hard, because "for" sees abundance in the fact that we all have enough. "Against" says there are limited resources and we must save them for ourselves, for you and me, and when push comes to shove, I'm not so sure about you. We've been down this road once or twice before: on this blog, in human history:

The consistent thread through the Hebrew scriptures into the proclamation of the basileia tou theou is that humans must eschew and avoid political power, because power draws its source from the fear of scarcity. As Brueggemann reads the Biblical narrative, Pharoah represents the people who live in fear and anxiety and anger. Such people have no energy left over for the neighborhood. In the story of Joseph and Pharoah, the guy with the most power and authority and wealth, dreams of scarcity. Which is not surprising; Pharoah's oikos is governed by the fear of running out. It is what keeps him in control, keeps him in power and why the people allow him to rule. This anxiety about scarcity is what drives the Hebrews into slavery and so, in brief, Genesis moves into Exodus.

Now Pharoah is so afraid of scarcity, so filled with anxiety for what might be taken from him, he begins to kill the babies of the Hebrews (and here the parallel to Herod in the New Testament, where he is clearly Pharoah to all the Gospel writers, becomes clearer. This is where Matthew draws his parallel with the Massacre of the Innocents). This is Pharoah's anxiety at work. As my notes indicate from the lecture: "The system that generates anxiety cannot relate to steadfast love." Which all by itself explains much about the reaction to Tom Fox, and even to the desire to go to war in the Middle East, a desire Wesley Clark says originally led to a plan to invade 7 countries in that region. But the story of the Exodus is that "Anxiety generated by ideology and social systems is not a part of the human condition." It is, in other words, our creation, and our creation, unlike God's, is grossly imperfect.

Enter Moses, a person with nothing who dreamed of freedom and departure from the "anxiety producing system." And then there is the miracle in the desert, the gift of God's abundance in the manna which comes to break the influence of the anxiety system (it comes as the people are complaining that they were better off in Egypt than in the desert). Our anxiety, Brueggemann notes, is a product of our lack of trust (faith) in God. God's offer of abundance, he says, calls into question the anxiety created by social systems, by human structures and strictures; and yet God never gives us more than "this day our daily bread."
I know this has the particularity of Christianity, of Judaism, but how else would you have me speak? Any more universally, and it is merely vague and glittering generalities, pretty to look at but adding up to too much of nothing. Any more particular, and I am clanging cymbal, noise adding up to nothing. Besides, I like the idea of the guy with the greatest power and wealth tossing in his bed, haunted by nightmares of scarcity. It rings so true on such a universal level, it's practically an archetype. At least, it would be, if we valued wisdom as much as we value money and power.

But the two are contraries; you can't value one while valuing the other. It's an either/or, a dichotomy with no compromise. In times of deprivation, in times of slight want (compared to Third World poverty how much, really, are Americans suffering? I can't help ask the question, even as I know how unfair it is to compare and contrast sufferings, to establish a hierarchy of loss), when we should recognize that our fundamentals are not sound at all, are not enduring or reliable or concerned with our well-being, when we should turn away, not just "against," and we still can't do it. Imagine if we heard a voice asking us to make the sacrifice of Abraham. But that's why the story of the akedeh is so terrible; we know we could never do it; not because we lack the "blind faith" of Abraham (which faith was not blind at all, but that's another discussion), but because it would leave us nothing to be against. And that, finally, is what we refuse to let go of: without opposition, we are nothing.

Opposition is the force that gives us meaning. Or, at least, we think so.


  1. Anonymous10:20 AM

    Got through about a third of it, I'll have to wait till tonight to finish it. I love the long, long posts, RMJ, so much to think about.

    I will point out that The Old Man of the Mountain fell off a few winters back. It seems apropos to the post.

    Anthony McCarthy

  2. I will point out that The Old Man of the Mountain fell off a few winters back. It seems apropos to the post.

    Yeah, it does, doesn't it?

  3. Robert, you're right. It's easier to be against something. The energy has gone out of me.

    I know. I'm giving too short a response to a fine, long post.

  4. Mimi-

    Thank you.