"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Irony and Earnestness (Sunday, January 27, 2013)

In these difficult days in which we live-- these times when it sometimes does seem as though "the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity"-- these times when our culture seems debased and our politics degraded-- there is, in the opinion of a Princeton professor named Christy Wampole, one person who ranks as the supreme symbol of all that is wrong with our age and with our culture-- indeed, who represents that which is most wrong with the current state of Western civilization.

Not Islamic terrorist or corporate raider. Not Barrack Hussein Obama or Mitt Romney or even Donald Trump. It’s not even Simon Cowell.

No, according to Professor Wampole, writing recently in the New York Times, the real enemy of truth, justice, and the American way (so to speak) is none other than a smaller-than-life figure known as “The Hipster”:

“The hipster haunts every city street and university town,” Wampole writes. “Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions (the mustache, the tiny shorts), mechanisms (fixed-gear bicycles, portable record players) and hobbies (home brewing, playing trombone). He harvests awkwardness and self-consciousness. Before he makes any choice, he has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream. He is a walking citation; his clothes refer to much more than themselves. He tries to negotiate the age-old problem of individuality, not with concepts, but with material things.”

In Wampole’s estimation, “The Hipster”—great symbol of our times—is the great archetype of the omnipresent irony which infects our age. Irony has become the overriding ethos of the dispirited and debilitated times in which we are living. Because of our current fixation on the ironic, the professor believes, we have become so much less (as a culture, as a nation, as a people) than we could be. “Irony is the most self-defensive mode,” she writes, “as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices… To live ironically is to hide in public.”

Directness—sincerity—earnestness—have become unbearable to us. We flee from them, through the escape toward irony. To be ironic—to live ironically—is to be in step with the times. To strive to live earnestly, to express oneself directly and sincerely, is to be hopelessly out of step, to cling to an age and a way of human living that is already dead and gone.

In the ironic, hipster worldview, we have become so suspicious of the “phoniness” of the world that we don’t really believe in anything any more. But unlike the cynic, whose attitude is to withdraw from the world and society, the attitude of the ironist is to go along with the culture, to subvert it, to accommodate to it, reap its material rewards, while all the time inwardly loathing everything for which the world (ostensibly) stands.

In short, we’ve become like the main character in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, who ultimately laments:

Nothing really matters,
anyone can see…
Nothing really matters
to me.

While all along, of course, the world does matter. It matters greatly. Extreme irony would have us shrug our shoulders and disengage from the world. While all along, more sinister forces are still full of “passionate intensity”.

Now, to Professor Wampole, of course, “The Hipster” is the primary symbol of the current age. But Hipsters, or people like them, aren’t new, of course. In late-19th century Britain, such flamboyant anti-establishment types were known as “Dandies”. In post World War Two America, they were known as “Beatniks”. A little later, they were known as “Hippies”. (“Hipsters”, I suppose, are a debased and ironicized [I think I just made up that word] species of Hippies, I guess.)

But the species goes back even further in history. A couple of hundred years ago, in the aftermath of the French Revolution that had bloodied French society for a generation, well-to-do young men called Incroyables took to dressing in a fashion that sounds kind of like that of today’s Hipsters: they wore tight pants, thick glasses, bright green coats with exaggerated high collars and loud, bright neck ties. Their female counterparts, called Merveilleuses (“the marvelous ones”) wore different colored wigs, weird and elaborate headdresses, and semi-transparent tunics of gauze or linen that left very little to the imagination. (Sounds sort of like Lady Gaga, I guess.)

These Parisian young people sought to parody the fashion and politics of their day and both to amuse and shock the people around them. They would roam the streets, drinking, smoking, carrying on—and even bopping old-guard revolutionaries with wooden clubs. The older generation was shocked, and thought the world was going to hell.

Well, the world survived the Incroyables and the Merveilleuses. It survived the Dandies and the Beatniks and the Hippies of the 1960s and 1970s. It will probably survive the Hipsters, too. But what of the debilitating effects of irony? Has it so deeply affected our culture, and rendered us unable to respond sincerely and forthrightly to the challenges of our times, the challenges we face in our own lives?

According to Wampole and other members of the new “Irony Police” (as they are sometimes labeled) the all-too-pervasive influence of irony in our culture does run these risks. Irony makes cynics of us all, and lessens our willingness to engage actively in the world—to change the world, to fight its battles, to confront its evil and injustice. In our time, they would say, mockery has become a way of life. Irony is elitist and undemocratic, too, some would claim. In the words of one commentator, “[Irony] depends on double meaning and a double audience, divided into those who understand and those who don’t. It corrodes honest speech and honest feeling, while encouraging greed and cruelty. Irony, its enemies say, is private, selfish, and indifferent, while earnestness is public, generous, and concerned.” Irony is “crippling the youth of America,” the editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune adds. (Next thing we know, the President will be appointing Joe Biden to lead a commission to study the effects of irony on the American economy!)

It is true, of course—absolutely true—that how we choose to live our lives is important. The decisions we make—as private individuals, as public citizens—have consequences. A good society is one in which as many people as possible engage earnestly with the tasks that are before them; a society in which people strive, all in their own ways, to assume their fair share of life’s burdens; to meet unmet needs; to define for themselves a healthy view of who they are and how they relate to the world.

And if we are honest, a true and responsible life requires of us a willingness to sacrifice many things, in extreme cases everything, for the sake of that which gives life meaning.

Truly, the demands which life makes of us could not be more earnest at times. Living life to its depths requires of us that we wake each morning with the willingness in our hearts to sacrifice even our own lives in defense of our highest values. Those are high stakes. And while, thankfully, few of us will be called upon to make that kind of sacrifice, staring life in the face like that can be a frightening prospect. So, it is easy to understand those who retreat from these demands behind the facade of a banal, prosperous, comfortable, irony-laded life.

Irony can be destructive if it ends with itself. If it offers no word of encouragement, no hope, no suggestion for how to build something in place of that which it seeks to tear down.

But a life without a deep sense of irony and a profound sense of humor—without an open acknowledgment of the absurd within ourselves and within human existence—can be but a different kind of hell, a dreary place indeed.

Perhaps as far as irony and earnestness are concerned, as in most aspects of life, I suppose, there’s a continuum. Few of us spend all of our time at one end or the other, and that’s probably healthy.

For instance, Lady Gaga, the queen of the ironic, may sometimes wear a dress made out of meat, sure; but she has also led the movement against homophobia in our culture, and has done more than anyone to confront the scourge of bullying in our schools.

Don’t forget, too, that it was some of those same “Hipsters” with their i-pods and their oh-so-ironic t-shirts that gave the world the “Occupy” movement, that might yet manage to change our society and our world.

Are any of you as hooked on “Downton Abbey” as I am? Well, if you are, then you know that we  just love the Dowager Countess (the character portrayed by Maggie Smith), and we look forward every episode to her sarcastic, skewing comments. But I also know that I, at least, also greatly admire the somewhat dowdy and boring Cousin Isobel, for her basic middle class decency, and stick-to-it-tiveness, and her insistence on doing the right thing in all circumstances. And the series needs both of them; Downton needs both. Our world needs both kinds of people.

Jane Austen knew that. Shakespeare knew that. So did Charles Dickens.

Anatole France, who won the 1921 Nobel Prize for literature, once said that a world without irony would be like “a forest without birds”: "Irony is the gaiety of meditation and the joy of wisdom," he wrote. There is a deeper irony that keeps us truly human by casting the cold eye of truth on life and death, and reminding us of what we really value, and skewering our present reality in the light of that truth.

The one thing that unites all the really nasty people in the world, Oscar Wilde once said, is their deep sense of earnestness. There are no people more consistently earnest than fanatics of every persuasion. So often, it is through the withering touch of irony that demagogues and would-be tyrants are unmasked and sent packing. For example, there have been few men in modern history as earnest and forthright and honest as Vaclav Havel. Largely through his efforts, the Communist tyranny of his homeland, Czechoslovakia, was brought to its knees and dismantled. It’s striking, then, to remember, that Havel’s career was made as one of the leading playwrights in the literary movement known as the “Theatre of the Absurd”.

 If irony opens our eyes to the absurdity of our times and our human predicament-- if it gets us to let go of our self-righteousness and self-seriousness and our perfectionism, so that we can join with others in our common quest-- then irony can well be the holy gateway to the earnestness we will need to build a better world. Our sense of the ironic can remind us that none of us is the center of the universe, and that if we worship at the altar of our own little selves-- or the limited vision of our vacuous culture-- then we're worshipping at a mighty small altar indeed.

In my theology, God has a great sense of urgency. He wants to get things done. But God has a great sense of humor, as well. If you don’t believe me, just look around.

Some things matter in this world. They matter very deeply. And they ought not to be disparaged, or written off, or be subject to ridicule and marginalization.

Things like our love for one another.

Things like caring for the sick, and the weak, and the old.

And being strong enough to weep, and vulnerable enough to offer to help.

And the innocence of children.

And the wisdom of years.

And remembering where we’ve come from.

And always being thrilled to start a new journey. 

And romanticizing neither the past, nor the future, but living fully, right now, in the eternal moment that is before us.

And hearing, amidst the clamor of different tunes, the Spirit’s great song, filling our hearts and illuminating our minds, and leading us down the path which is ours to walk.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

For the Love of the World: Remembering Rev. James Reeb (Sunday, January 20, 2013)

On January 18, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived in Selma for the opening of Project Alabama, a massive civil rights effort aimed at securing the unobstructed right to vote for the black people of that state. 

Week after week, black men and women demonstrated in the streets of the Alabama city, demanding their rights. They were met with stiff resistance from local police and the Alabama State Highway Patrol. Finally on March 7, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the Jefferson Davis Highway, just outside the city, "Wallace's Storm Troopers"-- as the Highway Patrol had become known-- with billyclubs flailing, charged a group of demonstrators. Scores of demonstrators were beaten to the ground, and then the police regrouped again. This time, they fired canisters of tear gas into the crowd. The marchers fell back in clouds of dense smoke, choking and crying in pain.

But "Wallace's Storm Troopers” weren't done yet. As white onlookers cheered, the mounted police again charged into the crowd of demonstrators, lashing them with bull whips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. Reeling under the blows, the marchers retreated back to Brown Chapel in the city, the road behind littered with broken bodies.

The air still reeked with tear gas as Martin Luther King sent out a flurry of telegrams to religious leaders across the country. "Come to Selma," he implored them. It was time for well-meaning white people across the land to get off the sidelines: Come to Selma; get directly involved in the struggle of black Americans for freedom and justice. A massive interfaith "Ministers' March for Montgomery" was scheduled for Tuesday, March 9.

In Boston, a Unitarian Universalist minister named James Reeb decided to respond to Dr. King's call. He made his way to Selma, as did scores of other UU ministers from across the country. They were joined by colleagues from countless other faith traditions as well, and overnight, it seemed, perhaps 500 ministers, rabbis, priests, and nuns had descended on Alabama to stand together for freedom. Governor Wallace branded them "agitators-- one and all". "Why not?" shot back one black clergyman. "The agitator is the part of the washing machine that gets the dirt out." 

On Tuesday morning, the "Ministers' March" began as planned, and proceeded once again to the Pettus Bridge. But there, they were turned away: a court injunction had been filed by local authorities, forbidding them from marching onward to Montgomery. But their presence alone had made an important point; the conscience of the nation seemed to be aroused at last. The "Ministers' March" made its way back toward Selma. 

That night, James Reeb and several colleagues had dinner at a black cafe in downtown Selma. They then parted company, with Reeb, Orloff Miller, and Clark Olsen heading back toward their hotel. As they walked past the Silver Moon Cafe in a white part of town, a voice rang out and four white toughs emerged from the shadows. They fell upon the ministers, swinging clubs wildly in the air. One kept hitting Reeb's head, as though swinging a baseball bat. Reeb lapsed into a coma. He died two days later. He was 38 years old. 

James Joseph Reeb had been born in Wichita, Kansas, on New Year's Day in 1927. Even though the Second World War was drawing to a close, and the call up of new troops had already been suspended, Reeb enlisted in the U.S. Army days after his eighteenth birthday in 1945. He wanted to play at least a small role, he said, in the free world’s battle against tyranny and fascism. After the war, he graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1953. But soon, he found his way into the more liberal Unitarian faith. He was called as assistant minister at All Souls Church in Washington, DC, in 1959, but left there in September 1964 to become Community Relations Director of the Boston Community Housing Program of the American Friends Service Committee. 

In moving to Boston, Reeb had moved his family from a comfortable parsonage in suburban Chevy Chase to a simple house in Dorchester, then one of the most run-down areas of Boston's inner city. He had given up serving a prosperous and prestigious congregation in the capital’s Beltway in order to support a risky attempt at community organization in Roxbury. He said that be made the move because he thought it was the right thing to do;  because by doing so he felt as though he was an answering some deep inner calling to the authentic work that was his to do in life. He had wanted originally to serve an inner city congregation within the Unitarian Universalist denomination, but was unable to find one that offered the challenge he was seeking. In frustration, he had written to a friend in the spring of 1964, "[The Department of Ministry] assures me they will get my name on lists of 'desirable churches'. If there's anything I'm not interested in, it is joining the lists of those looking for 'desirable churches'..." 

So, Reeb’s inner light led him, then, to Boston. When he arrived in Dorchester, he wrote to a friend: "I have seized the bull by the horns-- I am doing what seems important and let the damn torpedoes come!"

Never one to accept a challenge half-way, James Reeb was a man who could not rest until his ideals became enshrined in the day to day living of his life. He didn't just want to work in the inner city; he wanted it to become his home—and his family's home-- as well. It would have been hypocrisy, he felt, to descend on the inner city by day as a sort of "white savior", only to slink off to the comfort of the suburbs when night fell. From the very start, Reeb and his wife, Marie, and their four children plunged into the community life of Dorchester and Roxbury. They were often the only white faces in the crowd; their children were the only white children in their school. When Reeb arrived in Selma in March of 1965, an old friend greeted him with the words, "I knew you would be here!" He would never make it back home to Boston. 

 After Reeb's death on March 11, groups nationwide staged demonstrations in his memory and in support of the cause of civil rights for which he had died. Over 30,000 men and women gathered in Boston for a service in his memory. At Rev. Reeb's memorial service at Brown Chapel in Selma, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a moving eulogy.  He began by praising the heroic example presented by people like James Reeb:

"The world is aroused over the murder of James Reeb. For he symbolizes the forces of good will in our nation. He demonstrated the conscience of the nation. He was an attorney for the defense of the innocent in the court of world opinion. He was a witness to the truth that men of different races and classes might live, eat, and work together as brothers."

But then, Dr. King’s tone changed, and he raised the question, "Who killed James Reeb?" His answer:

"James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism..." 

President Lyndon Johnson, too, was deeply moved by the death of  Rev. James Reeb. Upon hearing of the attack on the ministers on March 9, he immediately telephoned Marie Reeb, and arranged for an airplane to fly her to Alabama. Along with the events of Bloody Sunday, historians believe, it was Reeb's death that galvanized the President's unswerving support for the Civil Rights Movement. On March 15, Johnson addressed a Joint Session of Congress and urged immediate passage of a comprehensive Voting Rights Act:

"At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed...

"But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."

Within just a few months, by August, the Voting Rights Act had passed Congress and had been signed into law by the President.

What of James Reeb’s attackers?

Following the attack on Reeb and his colleagues, several men were arrested and charged with murder. They were immediately released on bond, and just a few months after Reeb's death, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted Elmer Cook, Stanley Hoggle, and O'Neal Hoggle of all charges. For 46 years, Reeb's case was relegated to the FBI's Cold Case Unit, where it remained until the forty-sixth anniversary of the minister's death on March 11, 2011. On that day, the FBI's Cold Case Initiative that it is reopening its investigation into the all but forgotten case.  But the FBI has announced no progress in the case since then. After almost fifty years, Reeb’s killers are still walking free.

But because of the goodwill and sacrificial spirit of men and women like James Reeb-- and Viola Liuzzo (a Roman Catholic laywoman who was killed just outside Selma, two weeks after Rev. Reeb’s death)—and James Earl Chaney and Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (three young Civil Rights workers killed in Mississippi the year before)—and scores of others, and because of Dr. King, of course--  they walk and live in a far different world than that of 1965.

The prophetic call of modern times, James Reeb believed, was the call toward human freedom and social justice. "Whom shall I send to comfort my people?" the voice of God asks in the book of the prophet Isaiah. Like the ancient prophets, James Reeb's answer, too, was "Here I am. Send me." 

We need to remember his story. And we need to ponder that call in our own lives.  

Monday, January 14, 2013

On Taking Offense (Sunday, January 13, 2013)

      Don’t you think there seem to be an awful lot of ticked off people in the world these days? So many people seem so angry at one another. It’s not necessarily personal, either. Personal anger—personal offense taking—getting peeved because of something that’s been done to us personally, by our families, or friends or acquaintances, or in our jobs—isn’t really what I’m talking about this morning. As Carlyle said a long time ago, “No man lives without jostling and being jostled; in all ways he has to elbow himself through the world, giving and taking offense.”

No, I’m more concerned with the global implications of offense taking—of people, or groups of people, being offended because their tribe, or their nation, or (usually) their religion has been ridiculed or insulted or otherwise put down by some other person or group of persons.

Middle Eastern followers of Islam take offense at a crude Youtube video called The Innocence of Muslims (or sometimes called The Real Life of Muhammad), and launch protests in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe, and Australia that eventually lead to hundreds of injuries and over 75 deaths.

Do you remember a few years ago when Christians of various persuasions were offended because Dan Brown, in his novel, The Da Vinci Code, had dared to insinuate that Jesus might actually have been married, and that not every word in the Christian Gospel was 100% verifiably, historically true?

Or when Jewish organizations launched a boycott of Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, because of real or suspected anti-Semitism in some of the narrative (which was based on an assertion that the Gospel of John was 100% true.)

Every year, an organization called the Catholic League issues an annual report detailing the epidemic of anti-Catholic offense in the arts, in business, education, government, and the media. The most recent report detailed the anti-Catholic offenses of an organization called the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests who had the temerity to expose clergy sexual abuse within the church. It also pointed the finger at publications like Rolling Stone  and the Philadelphia Inquirer who had the nerve to cover the crisis. Catholics are supposed to be offended that newspapers dare to do such things.

The Catholic League’s report also details the latest volleys in the so-called “War on Christmas”, including the “intolerance” of Rhode Island’s governor, Lincoln Chafee, who had the temerity to refer to the large tree in the Rhode Island statehouse rotunda as a “holiday” tree, rather than a Christmas tree.

(By this same line of reasoning, we of a more-or-less Christian persuasion are supposed to greet anyone who wishes us “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” with an icy stare, if not a punch in the nose. I don’t know: I think it’s kind of nice if anyone wishes me a happy anything in this day and age.)

The list continues:

Jewish organizations accuse anyone who does not support every utterance and activity of the present government of Israel of being “anti-Semitic”. If they happen to be Jewish themselves (or even Israelis), they are accused of being “self-hating Jews”.

Non-believers get offended, too, of course. Atheists in Woonsocket, Rhode Island (of all places) are offended because there is a cross (of all things) on the grounds of one of the city’s fire stations, recognizing fire fighters killed in action—in World War One. The cross has been there over 90 years, without causing any trouble. If truth be told, I lived in Woonsocket the first 27 years of my life and never even noticed it.  Now, all of a sudden, it’s offensive. It’s got to go, the atheists of Woonsocket say, along with the angel and the prayer on the fire department’s website, while you’re at it.

I even read a blog recently by a fellow Unitarian Universalist minister who was offended because it seems that Garrison Keillor actually ridicules UUs from time to time on his Prairie Home Companion radio program.

She must not like The Simpsons, either, where Unitarians are occasionally the butt of jokes, as well. As when, at Springfield’s Fourth of July celebration, Lisa buys a cone of “Unitarian”  ice cream., from among the flavors on sale from various denominations.  “But it doesn’t taste like anything,” she complains. “Exactly,” replies Pastor Lovejoy, a bit smugly.

(Now, I’ve always thought it preferable to be ridiculed than to be ignored, and I think that’s very funny. But maybe I’m just a “self-hating Unitarian”, then.)

Where does all this outrage come from? Why does there seem to be more and more offense taking in this world of ours?

Near the end of her life in 1977, the anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked, “If we human beings are truly social animals, why do we seem to have such a difficult time getting along with one another? Why are there so many wars, so much hostility and aggression and intolerance among people?”

Mead’s answer was to the point. She replied, “99% of the time human beings have lived on this planet, we’ve lived in groups of 12 to 36 people. That is to say, we’ve lived in small groups of people probably related to us; people who looked just like us, thought like us, ate and behaved like us, worshipped like us. We simply never needed to learn how to tolerate anyone who was different from us. But [just] in the last 300 years,” Dr. Mead went on, “the population of the world rocketed from 500 million to 4 billion [closer to 7 billion today]. We simply haven’t had enough time to learn how to get along in such a crowd of strangers.”

How do we get along, then, in this world of strangers?

It starts by not getting offended every time our own particular tenets of belief—our story, our perspective, our truth, cherished as they are—are questioned by others. The main characteristic, perhaps, of the post-modern world in which we live is that we are no longer living in a “one size fits all” world (or society). No single Big Story (or “meta-narrative”, as the philosophical talking heads call it) speaks to everyone, or expresses everyone’s deepest truths. In this world of competing worldviews—and with these “Rock ‘Em/ Sock ‘Em” worldviews delivered instantaneously to us through means of digital communications—we had better get used to seeing and hearing our cherished truths, our individual points of view, taking some knocks. Perhaps the most important thing we (post)modern men and women need to get used to is our ability to be offended—and yet, to get up, dust oneself off, go on, and continue to endeavor in the world.

This does not mean capitulation. It does not mean swallowing our values in the face of those of others. It does not mean being afraid to engage, to defend our own faith, to affirm what we believe fearlessly and vehemently, if need be.

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, there is a lovely scene where Alice is swimming in a pool of her own tears, when she encounters a mouse swimming next to her. So Alice, always a friendly sort, wants to connect, she tries to make conversation with the mouse. So, she starts talking about her cat, Dinah.

As we might imagine, the mouse wants to hear nothing about cats.  So it swims away. Alice goes after her, still trying to make conversation. She keeps on talking about how wonderful, how friendly, her cat is. When this doesn’t work, she talks about her dog instead. The mouse just keeps swimming away from her just as fast as she can.

“Oh, dear,” Alice cries sadly. “I’m afraid I’ve offended it again!” Finally, Alice calls out, “Mouse dear! Do come back, and we won’t talk about cats or dogs either, if you don’t like them!”

When the mouse hears this, it turns around and swims back to her. “Its face was quite pale,” Carroll writes, “and it said in a low, trembling voice, ‘Let us get to the shore, and I’ll tell you my history, and you will understand why I hate cats and dogs.’”

One way not to offend (or not to be offended) is not to engage—to retreat to one’s separate corner, one’s separate ghetto, one’s separate gated community, and try somehow to recapture that old world where  “people… looked just like us, thought like us, ate and behaved like us, worshipped like us.”

We can try to recapture the staid and stagnant so-called “good old days” and swim only in a pool of our own tears and the tears of our ancestors.

Or we can choose another way, which is to engage with life—in all its diversity and complication and surprise. To engage with life, burgeoning forth, unpredictable, wondrous, and amazing. To engage with life with a resilience and tenacity that reflect the dynamism and power at the very heart of life. We can try to create and foster for ourselves an entirely new relationship to the world, and to the wonder of Being.

This is our choice, in this (post)modern world: to engage and risk being offended; or to retreat and wither and die in the face of a changing world.

 Or we can choose an (even more dangerous) third option: that of battling ideologies, competing faiths, each attempting to impose its own way on a world that has its own history with cats and dogs.

Can there be any doubt what our choice must be, as compassionate, non-dogmatic, religious men and women, who dare to wear the badge “Universalist”?

When the fundamentalists of the world attempt to divide our planet into pitched camps of winners and losers, us and them, saved and unsaved, we must be bold enough and strong enough to risk being offended, unafraid to engage, unafraid to say what we think, and affirm our beliefs. But we must be willing, too, to get as good as we give. (For that is how we become as good as we can be.)

May the simple words of Gandhi guide us:

“All religions have some truth in them,” he said.
“All religions have some falsehood in them.
May all religions be nearly as dear to me as my own [religion] is.”

The weapons we wield as soldiers of tolerance and coexistence might seem almost pathetically anemic in this world of loud and hysterical voices. Nor is saving the world for tolerance just a matter of intellectual discourse, either. Intolerant people of all persuasions are not merely loud-mouthed and boorish; too often nowadays, they’re armed to the teeth, as well.

In the face of the absolute truth claims and blind obedience and fatwahs and false utopias of all the so-called “Armies of the Lord”—false prophets intent on creating a small and vindictive God in their own image-- we have to offer only our own compassion, our own humility, our own willingness to get out of the puddle of our own tears, and swim back to shore, and listen to the stories of those who are not at all like us. For that is always where the most amazing discoveries can be made!

In one of her books, Alice Walker tells the story of a childhood accident that left one of her eyes permanently scarred, so much so that she often wore dark glasses, even indoors.

When she had a child of her own, she worried how her baby girl would react to her mother’s wound. “Children can be cruel,” she thought. “Why should mine be any different?”
One day, as she held her child after dressing her, she noticed her daughter peering intently into her eye. “This is it,” she thought, steeling herself for the inevitable hurtful comments.

“Mama,” the little girl said cheerily, “Mama, you’ve got a world in your eye!”

She had seen her mother’s wound not as a disgrace, not as a disfigurment, but as a lovely marking, a deep reflection uniting her with all humankind, with all creation. When we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of another, we share a holy place, indeed.

May we, too, learn to have a world in our eyes: and see our differences not as stumbling blocks, not as walls between us, but as bridges of compassion and understanding. May the wounds we bear unite us with men and women everywhere. May we hear the different viewpoints of others not as challenges to our truths, but as new additions to the living gospel of our greater and wider human story. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Sadness Beyond Words (Sunday, January 6, 2013)


             Our hearts and minds rebel at the very thought of what happened a few weeks ago in a rural town in western Connecticut. This is, obviously, not the way the world is supposed to be, and even amid the wave of tragedies we witness almost daily in this age of instant communications, this one ranked among the worst. In a quiet Connecticut elementary school, twenty precious children lost their lives in a rain of gunfire. Six brave women were killed trying to protect them. A mother is killed by her son in her own home. A deranged young man ends his own life in a day of terror.

            Twenty-eight lives ended in a hail of violence, and the horrible images we see are only surpassed  by the even more horrible ones we imagine. Little children lying lifeless on the floor. Scores of others crouching in fear in cupboards and closets. Parents’ faces twisted in agony, in fear, in grief. A dark cloud of sorrow seems to hang over all. Sadness gives way to anger, then to numbness; then finally, just to sadness once again, and we have all grown much older in a day.

            Whatever our politics, whatever our faith, whatever our philosophy, we know deeply: this is not the way life is supposed to be. We have, most of us, lived long enough to understand that tragedy is part of life and that bad and sad things happen in this world. But here, in Newtown, at Sandy Hook, we have truly witnessed the depths of despair, before which our own little aches and pains and petty crises and even the major frustrations and sadness of our own lives pale in comparison.

            I cannot imagine what those parents must be going through. Or the trauma of classmates who witnessed such horrors. Or the lasting effects on those who bravely shielded them, and hid them away, and protected them.  Or the effects on a community of such a public, horrific tragedy.

            How, in the face of such events, does life go on? How do those parts of the soul which events like these kill ever grow back again? How do you live brokenhearted? How do you live at all?

            The fact that people do survive such horrors testifies, I suppose, to just how strong the human spirit is. (I don’t know if I could be that strong. Nor do any of us. And may we pray that we are not tested so.) But while it seems almost callous to say it, life does go on. It has to.

            When she was asked whether Newtown would ever recover from the Sandy Hook tragedy, Maryann Jacob, a school librarian who took cover in a school storage room with 18 fourth-graders during the rampage, responded: “We have to. We have a lot of children left.”

            We have a responsibility to those taken from us to go on. Even more pressingly, perhaps, we have a responsibility to those left behind. We cannot sacrifice our responsibility to care for the future to the sadness and grief we feel today.

            We have a lot of children left, all of us do. Building the world they will inherit is our chief calling, as parents and grandparents, as creative beings, as people of faith,  and as citizens. Building the world our children will inherit is our chief calling as human beings.

            The Sandy Hook tragedy presents stark questions about the kind of world, the kind of society, we are handing down.

            Of course, there is something (in most of us, at least) which resists the urge to politicize such a universal tragedy. Of course, there are social and political ramifications to almost everything we do in this world. But it is not appropriate, it seems to me, to use this tragedy to run up points for one’s own position on gun control or funding for social programs or mental health services or any such issues. As our President said, rightfully I think, in the wake of the shootings in a Colorado movie theater this summer, “There are going to be other days for politics. This is a time for prayer and reflection.”

            Of course, part of that reflection may include our wondering why everyday, ordinary people like you and me even need access to military-style assault weapons in the first place. Or, in our prayer, we may well ponder why, in America today, it is so much easier to get thrown in jail than to be admitted to a mental health facility. Or why, the rate of deaths by firearms in the United States is three and a half times that for France; five times that for Canada; ten times that of Germany, Ireland, Australia, and India; forty times that of the United Kingdom and Romania, among other places. As one commentator has put it, why is the United States the only nation in the world where mentally unstable people are given access to technology, to weapons, that can make them lords over life and death for large numbers of people?

            These are important questions we must ponder as a nation. They are religious and ethical questions, as much as they are political ones. But still, the old activist slogan, “Don’t mourn—organize!” rings more than a little hollow at a time like this. Newtown presents even more important questions than the right way of interpreting the Second Amendment and reconciling the rights of some people to bear arms and the rights of the rest of us to dwell in peace and safety in our schools, communities, churches, and places of employment. For only if we take the time to mourn the dear victims of Sandy Hook—read their names, see their faces again, let the reality of these holy and precious lives taken way too soon penetrate deeply into our beings and our souls, can we give these lives (and these deaths) the honor and meaning they demand.

            Charlotte and Daniel and Olivia and Josephine. Dylan and Madeline; Catherine and Chase. Jesse, Ana, James, and Grace. Emilie. Jack. Noah. Caroline. Jessica. Avielle, Benjamin, and Allison.

            May these names be at the heart of our life’s litany in the days that are before us.  

            And Rachel, and Dawn, and Anne Marie, and Lauren and Mary and Victoria. And Nancy, too.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

What really matters, the President said, is “what we do on a daily basis to give our lives meaning and to give our lives purpose.”

Our hearts are broken, and we ask, “Where was God?” Where is God?

Those are questions people ask at times like these, and they are good questions, and they are hard questions. But sadness and suffering and tragedy and despair are fundamentally part of who we are as human beings and what life is on this earthly coil. Perhaps it is only our generally coddled position as 21st century Americans that insulates us from the reality of how tenuous and fragile life truly is.

“All life is suffering” was the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, and from that truth, he set out the path to enlightenment. In the Christian tradition, God did not become man to explain away all suffering, but to teach us of the power of love, divine and human, to transcend suffering and transform it.  

In his book, Night, Elie Wiesel tells of his experience in the hell of the Auschwitz death camp. In one of the most horrific passages, he tells of the execution by hanging of a young Polish boy by the Nazis for some petty offense. The other prisoners were forced to watch the boy as he hung from the gallows. Wiesel writes:

“For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes.  And we had to look him full in the face.  He was still alive when I passed in front of him.  His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.  Behind me, I heard [a] man asking: ‘Where is God now?’  And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He?  Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.’”

Where was God in Newtown? In those hallways and classrooms where children suffered, and cried out in anguish, and died. In the heart of Victoria Soto as she shielded her students with her very body in the face of an armed gunman. God was there afterwards, too, rejoicing with parents reunited with their children; weeping with parents when they received the news that their precious ones had been taken.  

God is the same “yesterday, today, and forever.” As one commentator has put it, “In fact, [God] is not on trial at Newtown—we are. It is not his response to Newtown that is in question, but ours.”

A Catholic writer, Max Lucado, wrote this Christmas prayer in the wake of the shootings:

“Jesus, it's a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark. I have a good eye for silver linings. But they seem dimmer lately… You entered the dark world of your day. Won't you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger. We ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us.”
As Anthony Podavano has written, “The things that break our hearts are not more significant than the things that mend and heal them.” The only real answer to violence is love. The only real answer to death is life. Sometimes in this world, we grapple with evil, true, and we must battle it even at the cost of our own lives, if needs be. But ultimately, the only way evil can be defeated is if we, each in our own way, each according to our own calling, remove it from our hearts, and live our lives in the light of God’s love.
In the name of whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, whatever is worthy of praise—in the name of those dear angels we remember this day (and always), may we arise with deep and profound sorrow in our hearts, but with new purpose, as well—with new urgency and new determination—to bind up the broken, to comfort the afflicted, to spread as far as we may the love and peace of God across the face of this world.