Saturday, October 31, 2009

never sleep

I never sleep really comfortably, except when I am at a sermon, or at my prayers.

-- Francois Rabelais, Gargantua (trans. J. M. Cohen)

The license of the plebeians must be restrained and humiliated. . . . But if one day . . . the art of mockery were to be made acceptable, . . . it would summon the dark powers of corporeal matter.

-- Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose


It’s been said that Yeshua and his followers would have been indistinguishable, in the markets of ancient Palestine, from Cynic philosophers – wise-cracking countercultural street performers who sang for their supper, and came indoors of an evening for a good meal and a piece of floor to sleep on. If no one in the town would take them in, their rules of engagement told them to shake the dust from their feet, and move on.

It’s also been said that the prophet could speak for hours to multitudes who gathered on hillsides. And that the multitudes would listen. He could make a splash, in the city square or on the hillsides. He was a good communicator. The most indubitable fact about his life is that he attracted enough attention to get killed.

How does one hold the attention of an illiterate audience in a noisy city square, or on a hillside? Not with a sermon. Street sermonizing is a notoriously deluded enterprise. There are people preaching what they think to be The Word on street corners of my city today, and no one stops to listen. Not unless they have other skills – skills that can only be described in the language of showbiz.

We don’t have to speculate about his skills: the research has been done. The scholar of street performers in Washington Square Park discovered that the successful artists, who gather and hold audiences, get an audible response every eight seconds.* There are two ways to do this: “making people laugh (comedy) and showing something amazing (testing fate).” We know the kind of conjuring tricks by which a holy man could earn his reputation these miracles appear on the record, even if he did not do them, because prophets were supposed to amaze the crowd. What has been concealed, though perhaps the signs are in plain sight, is his gift for comedy.

The deepest secret about Yeshua is that he was among other things a comedian. To reconstruct his act, we must read it in a way that priests will not permit. Theyve kept the lid on through the centuries, for when the comic word breaks out the falsely dignified are first to be deposed. It isn’t easy to discover what was covered up. There’s no logical way to see what has been veiled. Comedy is what doesn’t translate, easy to conceal, a matter not of content but of form and context. A man gets beaten with a stick: is it comedy or tragedy? no telling in the abstract. If we would search out laugh-lines, we must look for signs of irony, of wordplay, of satire and table-turning. We should ask how the line would sound if Mort Sahl had said it. Or Henny Youngman.

“Let the dead . . . bury the dead.” Ba-DUM-bum.

“The Sabbath was made for man . . . not man for the Sabbath.” Think about it.

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s . . . and to God what is God’s.” Don’t let the dust choke you on the way out.

Well, maybe you had to be there. No, seriously. You had to be there. You had to see him work the hecklers, outwit the tricksters, disappoint the ones who wanted him to self-incriminate. You had to hear the crowd roar when he brought the pompous rascals down. These were the poor and desperate of Judea, unsure of their next meals. They loved to see the wise and mighty put to nought. Their laughter was the congratulation that he offered them. “I'm not so much interested in politics as I am in overthrowing the government," said Mort Sahl. Yeshua wasn’t a politician or a soldier, but he played with words like “kingdom of God,” and in the kingdom of Caesar that was enough to get him killed.

Laughter is not systematic. It’s a corporeal event, asserting paroxysm against syllogism, the belly against the brain – body (if you draw such distinctions) against the soul. It’s always liquidating authority. It puts the Word in Flesh, and scares the church to death. Boo!

*Sally Harrison-Pepper, Drawing a Circle in the Square: Street Performing in New York’s Washington Square Park (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1990)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

many irishmen

The intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me. They learn all the details of guard duty and Camp service, infinitely more readily than the Irish I have had under my command.

-- Col. Robert Gould Shaw, letter to his mother, March 25, 1863*


It came as a “surprise” to this white commander of black troops that they would make “as good a regiment, as any that has marched.” With abolitionist condescension, he said his troops were “like children;” but in due time these men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry convinced him of their manhood. The irredeemable troops of that army, according to Shaw, were not the black ones but the Irish ones. “The Irishmen,” he wrote (May 25 1861), “seem sometimes utterly unable to learn or understand anything.”*

I grew up among institutions of the Mayflower, in Connecticut River towns with village greens, Greek Revival civic halls, and white frame meeting-houses with green shutters, clear windows and pointed spires. I lived in parsonages of Victorian or English colonial origin, one of them from the time of the French and Indian War. I attended a prep school of Anglo-Saxon nomenclature where, though neither I nor my parents were native to New England, our British name and pink complexions earned us trust. In those towns the suspect peoples were the ones whose families had arrived on other boats. They were Italian, Portuguese, Slavic or Irish, or Jewish.

In those days it was rumored that in the cities there were black people, but “Negroes” didn’t come so close to us in daily life that we would fear them. If we were liberals, we might declare ourselves on their side without knowing any of them, but if we did so the Italians and the Portuguese, the Slavs and the Irish took offence.

In Shaw’s day the Irish were less reputable than free Africans. But when the Kennedy boys went to schools like mine and one of them became president, the Irish forgot eight centuries of warfare with the English and became New England’s newest white people.

So what is this “white” identity of mine? The community called white at any given time is a conglomerate of tribes. A generation or so ago these tribes were killing each other. Their common story is of mutual hatred and murder, and they suppress it as the price of admission to whiteness. They make each other powerful by forgetting their history, and by closing ranks against the ones left out, who remember history.

The critical theories of the latest fin-de-si├Ęcle tell us that race is socially constructed, and the composition of whiteness is therefore a convention like “king’s English. Science provides no genetic definition of race, nor will it countenance the notion of subspecies. “Race” enters history only because human beings think it is important. Yet friends of African ancestry tell me that they and their children cannot “pass” for white in the way that Slavs and Mediterraneans have done: Danny Glover in a three-piece suit still can’t get a taxi. Their testimony implies that racial classification – and reclassification – has perceptual if not genetic limits. As long as the first fact noted about my brother or sister is their pigmentation, then some will be excluded to define the inclusion of others. If a time is coming when, on meeting my African brother, I don’t think off the top of my head “Oh, there’s a black man!” that will be a good thing, will it not, my friend?

What do I get for being white? Though I didn’t choose my place in history and can’t unchoose it, the places we are thrown into at birth aren’t equal – just ask those thrown into the valleys. Here on my modest hill I received an extra portion, not so much of assets as of aspiration, and in my hand was placed the key to a prestigious culture. That I have not mastered the universe – well, perhaps that’s my fault, and mere survival therefore is my fortune. What I lack for being white is an identity.

Why did my people – whoever they were, German, English or Celtic come to what they called a New World (though they stole it from those who had owned it of Old)? What persecution or privation drove them from their native continent? It’s all under wraps. To acknowledge the story of those olden days is to break solidarity with our new-found friends, those other whites whose ancestors made us leave the Old World, but who now enjoy with us the fruits of theft, the robbery of labor or of land. We do not talk about our losses. We’re here now, where hard work gets you what you want. That’s our whitebread culture, in whose scripture nothing but valiant effort and deserved success are written.

When I go to hear Delta Blues, the audience is surprisingly white, which makes me think the mythology of valiant effort and deserved success has failed us. It fails us first because it’s false: life is not fair, even to white people. It fails us second because, even when it’s not disproved, it’s boring even unto death: there is no mode for our fear and suffering. And so we envy those outside our circle. And we go slumming.

O to be Irish! Or Hungarian, or Czech, or Sicilian, or Polish, or Basque, or Catalan, or any ancestor of whiteness who still recalls his song. Or to be black.

And that’s another reason why I can’t destroy my white identity – because I don’t have one. White is no identity.

*Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Robert Gould Shaw, ed. Russell Duncan (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1992)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

sufficient evil

Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

-- Matthew 6:34 (KJV)


And I’ve carried this burden of privilege all my life, though I did not fashion it. People who had no notion of me passed it down. My privilege is hard for me to see because it hasn’t made me wealthy. It’s also hard for me to see because I’ve never been without it. What would I compare it to?

Long ago, ancestors of mine stole the labor of others and confused it with their own. They imagined that their pile of wealth was a figure of their own hard work, and then they passed it down the generations to those who thought they earned it just be being born.

More recently and locally, my parents did what they could, what they thought necessary, to get me good schools and good connections, the skills of mind and heart, that I would need to gain good things in life. They made a pile of social capital for me, as big as they knew how. As best I could I did the same for my kids.

Our children are not sociology experiments. When we first look in their eyes, we pledge not to toss them in the human lottery to come up any which way. This child, we proclaim in the name of what is sacred, will have a good start. We promise security, nourishment, encouragement and means to independence – which is more than many children ever get. We promise like Billy Bigelow to earn what it takes, or beg, or steal or take it. We promise to be unjust for this child’s sake. If we don’t make and keep this promise we are bad parents. Of course my children are privileged: it was my sacred duty to make them so. And when every valley is exalted, those who are now poor will privilege their children better than they can now.

Linus said he loved mankind, it was people he couldn’t stand. But there’s no love of God when you hate your neighbor, no scrubbed and shiny love in general apart from grimy, paltry love of ridiculous and needy creatures that surround and cling to you. The love of all is just an open set of particular loves – the love of this one, and of this, and this, and this, and . . . the next one might be Yeshua. And Linus, with his abstract love, loves none.

This is what we mean by family values – that we particular persons, few or many, nuclear or tribal, are pledged to each other in ways we are not pledged to the rest. And yet the love of those within our circle is always standing in the way of greater love outside. That’s why Yeshua renounced his family and left his home, taking to the road. He always drew the larger circle. His vision was so big, it shattered family. “If you want to be my disciple,” he said, “you must hate everyone else by comparison – your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters.”* They’re all your neighbors, even the centurions and god help us the Samaritans. And by the way, those brats out there, they’re all your children.

But here we go again, prophet – I can’t be father to all children. You invited little children unto you, but the story says you didn’t father any of them, clothe or feed them. No, I’m not a lily of the field, nor was meant to be; that is not my social location. I’ll make a deal with you. You pay the mortgage, find the health insurance, dive bottoms up in debt to send the babies off to college while dreaming of your next pink slip – then, and only then, will I let you tell me who my children are. Shatter me, prophet, if you must, but it’s my duty to shield my family from the likes of you.

St. Francis imitated Christ, renounced his parentage and wealth, and took to the road. I know that, if I quit my job, scattered my meager assets and left my home to consort with brother sun and sister moon, my children and my spouse would not feel honored by my choice. I have a family and I value them. I cannot, will not live as Yeshua and Francis did.

Imitatio Christi is not for me. We cannot all be Yeshua, if Yeshua is to be himself. Someone has to keep the house where he will knock and enter. Someone has to serve the dinner. Someone has to break the flask of oil, and wash his feet. The basileia tou theou is not all spirit; it has a body and an infrastructure. Christians say the church is the body of Christ, so – feed the holy flesh. Someone must go to market for the bread and wine. Someone must own and operate the kitchen where the poor, and the prophet, are to eat. The prophet needs a large supporting cast. If only stars can enter heaven, then hell will prove to be a tranquil place, a neighborhood where we would love to raise our kids.

What is this privilege I inherit, some of it because my skin lacks pigment? It’s partly what my parents did, and should have done, for me. And partly it’s the detritus of crimes done long ago, washed down through channels that were cut before my birth to my back door. So far I’ve survived, while someone else did not; but my inheritance, taken all together, hasn’t made me rich or safe. My grandpa, who owned property at a time and place when black men couldn’t, left me some money; and when it came I didn’t give it to the poor: I paid my debts and kept myself in business. Note to Francis: becoming homeless doesn’t solve the homeless problem.

I am not rich or powerful. In my seventh decade I’m still just hanging on. And what is my duty toward countrymen of color, more than to love kindness, act justly and walk humbly? A wise kind man of color, who led one of my church’s recent weekend inventories of racial justice, advised us not to accept the blame for all of history. We cannot be guilty of what we did not do. And we cannot be responsible for what we cannot do. To know your duty is to know the thousand things that are not your duty.

When Yeshua said the troubles of the day are sufficient, he was warning not to cripple the moment with terrors of the future. But neither should we sicken it with guilt of the irremediable past. The day is sufficient. Only on this day can I be just.

*Luke 14:26 (New Living Translation)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

this neck

When I go to visit peasants in southern Columbia, they don’t want me to give up my car. They want me to help them.

-- Noam Chomsky*


I studied with a theology professor who said that in order to be saved I must “destroy” my “white identity.” That identity, he said – which includes my liberal theology is a sign of my affluent privilege, and it alienates me from those whom God loves. I thought about this for a couple of years, and then realized I could not do what my professor wanted. My white identity, such as it is, cannot be destroyed. Not even in death. When I die, I will be a dead white straight man. The question will then be, what did I die and live for. To what use did I put my straightness, my manhood, and my white identity?

I take my professor’s premise more seriously than he does. His premise is that cultures, including ethics, aesthetics and theology, are “socially located.” My liberal religion, engendered by Enlightenment and aspiring toward universal law, is located in privilege. Liberals are affluent – or have at least the expensive tastes of the genteelly poor. They fuss about their solidarities with the oppressed, but they do not own liberation. The universal moral law has left them in a position where they do not need it. Liberation is not a universal, the professor would say; it is a project of those who need it – the very particular necessity of removing this boot from this neck. So don’t talk to me about your personhood if it’s not your neck under the boot, because if it’s not your neck then it is your boot.

So religions are socially located, he says. The liberal church is located in one place, while the black church is located in another. God does not float dispassionately among locations. The Spirit has descended, has chosen a place – in the church of the oppressed. God is black. My white identity must be destroyed and I, to be saved, must become black.

But that is exactly what I cannot do with my identity – because, as the professor says, it is socially located. No display of slumming can change identity. No person who chooses to align with black Americans is black, because the essence of oppression is that it is not chosen. When my identity is destroyed I shall not be black but dead, and my powers for good or ill will have vanished.

As long as I have breath, my virtues as well as my sins shall be those of my social location. If I give my life today for racial justice, as the Rev. James Reeb did at Selma, I shall become that white guy who came to the struggle and gave his life at a certain time and place, and the effect of my sacrifice will be the effect of a white man’s sacrifice. Not only my powers to oppress but my powers to liberate as well are the powers of a particular person in this place. I shall help my oppressed brother not by pretending to be someone else but by doing what this person, at this time and place in history, can do. If I am privileged then I have powers that others do not have, and my duty is not to give those powers away but to use them for good. The Little Rock Nine exposed Arkansas’s contempt for law, but Dwight Eisenhower and the 101st Airborne enforced the law. Dr. King enacted justice, but Lyndon Johnson made it legal.

So my identity cannot be destroyed to suit my professor’s soteriology. When he says so he contradicts his own premise. The real question, for a person like me, is not how to off myself but how to put myself to use – how to own my white liberal identity, its besetting virtues as well as its besetting sins, assets as well as deficits, opportunities as well as cul-de-sacs.

In my church we are ignorant of Christian Liberation Theology, and our weekend inventories of social location and racial justice lack the scriptural terror of a semester in the liberationist’s classroom. But we talk about privilege – white privilege. We white folks learn there are things that come to us because we are white. I have other unjust inheritances as well. Some things have come to because I am first-born. Some because I am male. Some because I am tall. Some things have not been taken from me because I am not gay.

It takes an external discipline to acknowledge these gifts, because with all these privileges my life doesn’t seem like a succession of triumphs. I do not leap from peak to peak, choosing which heads to crush each morning before breakfast. It isn’t easy to keep oneself and one’s family in the middle class by means of work that doesn’t kill you. If I hadn’t been white we might have been destroyed, but most days that doesn’t feel like a cause for celebration. I have to remember how many can’t get to the middle class because the ladders have been pulled up.

When I die, I hope to become a kind, just and humble dead white man.

*“Questions for Noam Chomsky: The Professional Provocateur,” New York Times Magazine (Nov. 2, 2003)

Saturday, October 3, 2009

penny spar'd

A penny spar’d is twice got.

-- George Herbert, Outlandish Proverbs (1640)

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

-- Luke 12:34 (KJV)


If you’re steward of a church, you’re expected to act prudently – that is, conservatively. You’re supposed to make sure the church will be there in the future, doing its good work. You’re supposed to repair the roof, maintain the furnaces, the plumbing and electrics. You might have to build new systems and new rooms, as the needs of your people change. Above all, you’re supposed to find the money; you must arrange to pay not only for present operations but for future dreams. You ask your fellow congregants to rise to their responsibility, and you rise to it yourself. You’re not supposed to say, “Guess what – it’s free!” You’re not supposed to say, “Read my lips – no new pledges.” That would be, to say the least, the opposite of conservatism.

Half my life ago, we elected a leader who said it was “Morning in America.” Now we know what he meant. He meant that we should always take the shortcut. Everywhere you look these days, you see some public monument named for him by a grateful people. Why take care for the future? he said. We can have whatever we want, right now, and never pay for it. We can have guns and butter, wars and tax cuts. As for the poor, damn them, they’re all driving Cadillacs, they should have worked harder (Isn’t that what Jesus said, I can’t think of the verse right now, but it’s in the Bible somewhere, right?) This leader threw a party with four trillion dollars of funny money. People said it made them feel good. Well, if I had four trillion dollars to throw around, I could make you feel good too. But I don’t have it. Nor in truth did he.

This leader’s moral teaching rules us to this day. We invade other countries without putting the cost on the budget. We idolize millionaire singers who don’t pronounce their words, or hit their notes, or tune their guitars. We let our roads and bridges go to rot. We give degrees in English to people who can’t read Shakespeare, Milton or Chaucer. We award vast bonuses for the “talent” of people who lie about money and then leave town before the lies come home. We gut our public schools and universities. We let our people go without medical care, each of us hoping it won’t happen to us. We let our nation grow dependent on Islamic oil barons and Chinese bankers. We steal every year the surplus of Social Security and spend it on current accounts. When for a couple of years we saved some money against future national obligations, people who called themselves conservative declared it a sin and gave the money away to rich people.

The people who call themselves “conservative” today are imposters. No real conservative would teach the people that they needn’t pay their bills. Such corrupters of youth should be shouted down when they claim that once honorable title. What did they conserve? They consumed both what was theirs and what was ours; and our newly elected leader, facing a bankrupt present and a looted future, must make terrible choices, for which the addicts of that purloined Morning in America will revile him. They ate all the food-stores and drank all the rum while the ship sprang leaks. Now they fear the ship is sinking, and now they claim the lifeboats as their personal property. Those with a different idea are, they say, socialists.

I am a conservative. (Since no one else is doing the job, I guess I have to do it.) I still think you have to work and save and take care against the future. If you want to own something, you must pay the price of it. If you want to have a job, you must offer the value of your wages. If you want to be rich, you must do things that create wealth. If you want a learned degree, you must study long and hard, and demonstrate intelligence. If you want to be an artist, you must practice your art until you’re good at it. If you want to be heard when you speak, you must read and write, study elocution and logic, and you must know what you’re speaking about. If you want to live in a decent country, you must pay the bill for it. If you want a mortgage, you must have an income that supports it. If you want to make money in the mortgage business, you must stick around and suffer if the deal goes bad. If you want the rewards of virtue, you must be good. If you want to be loved, you must love; if you want to be loved by your children, you must prepare a future for them, and a world to live it in. Shortcuts are roads to hell.

And in this arena of choices and consequences, the founders and Yeshua say, each of us has an inalienable right to play. America doesn’t guarantee you happiness, but it guarantees that you can pursue your happiness – and that is an expensive obligation. A child who cannot go to a decent school, cannot see a doctor, cannot be secure from violence, or cannot eat, is a child who cannot pursue happiness. There are no shortcuts to justice: opportunity has an infrastructure, which must be built, and maintained and paid for. Yeshua taught us that the troubles of the day are sufficient, but he didn’t mean that we can found our present happiness on the ruin of our children – or the ruin of other people’s children. They are our treasure; their future is their essence and therefore in our present, where our hearts should be as well.

To say this is to say only what I once thought everybody knew. But the Lords of Shortcut, prophets of the Great Free Lunch, have had a long loud night, and now it’s Morning in America. A hung-over morning, with broken vodka bottles on the floor, and that banging is not in your head – it’s the bill-collector. A penny spared against this moment would have been twice gotten.

The words “Damn the Poor, They Should Have Worked Harder” appear nowhere in the Bible. The opposite commandment appears hundreds of times. Congratulations to the poor, for the Divine Domain is theirs. No man, said Donne, is an island. Not one of us is self-made. Not one of us is self-sufficient. No one takes their idols with them when they die.

How has it come to this? That I – this liberal here – must wave both flags? Well, if others would just do their job, I could go about my vocation unencumbered; but it seems I have to do other people’s work for them. To those who may think I’m doing a bad job of it I say, “Pour your moonshine down the commode, smell the coffee, sit down in this chair and get to work.” Then I’ll go back to my chair, and we’ll go about our honorable business together. I’ll take my people to the woodshed when they deserve it, if you’ll do the same to yours. My prudent, true conservative friend, I miss you. Where have you been so long? Let us be prudent together. Capisci?