Sunday, September 30, 2012

best possible

I am the best possible Arnold Burns.

-- Herb Gardner, A Thousand Clowns

He didn't own a home.  He didn't support a family.  He couldn't hold down a job, didn't apparently even try.  He wandered the streets, and seduced others to do so as well.  His main guy said "We left everything to follow you."*  They say he was a carpenter's son, that is, he owned nothing but the strength of his body; but he had something the starving migrants lacked.  He had a voice.

Crowds came together, in the street or on a hillside.  People left their work, or their search for work, to hear him.  Perhaps he preached outside the vineyard gate -- and every time the owner came out during the day, there were more unemployed men there for him to hire, listening to the prophet.  "Why did you stand around here idle the whole day?" the owner said.  "Because no one hired us," they said.**

He told them there was another way to organize the world; and this new regime was at hand.  The new regime -- not Caesar's regime -- would require a metanoia, a changing of the mind, a teshuvah, a turning around, a repentance.  And wherever the new regime was revealed, at a supper party or in an empire, when the queue reversed itself, the first would be last and the last first.

He was utterly without power.  He didn't know where his next meal would come from, or under whose roof he would sleep.  Yet he so frightened the people who held the power that they felt compelled to kill him, and those who had left everything for him could not go home again, but were forced by the persistent memory of their time with him to carry on his work as best they could; and thereby hangs a tale.

And this is the person Christians tell themselves to imitate.

(Disclaimer: Am I a Christian?  That is a boring and futile question that I no longer answer.  What I am is, in the great tradition of Unitarianism, a reverent and heterodox interpreter of Yeshua's work, looking direct as I can on the source through a miasma of theology.)

You can't build a society on the assumption of universal heroism.  Not even a just society.  Particularly a just society.  A sustainable, just society must be built on the assumption of common decency.

Here's the problem with imitatio Christi.  Just imagine a world composed entirely of people living as Yeshua lived.  Kant would categorically reject it.  No one would hold a job.  No one would raise a family.  There would be no loaves and fishes for prophets to multiply.  No coats to give to our brothers who sue us for our shirts.  No authorities to protect the innocent, and prevent the lion from devouring the lamb.

Yeshua told a young man from the ruling class that to be a follower he must sell everything he owned and distribute the proceeds to the poor.  Let's think about that for a moment.

If I set out today to sell my meager goods and distribute the proceeds to the poor, the first to proclaim my sin against them would be my wife and my children.  Then the truly poor might have some choice words for this parvenu who has come to hang with them and compete for their crumbs of bread, their square inches of warm grating.  The charities and programs that provide relief, if they knew my history, would and should deny me service.  When you volunteer for suffering, it's not oppression, no matter how much you'd like it to be.

This is not my path.  Nor yours I wager.  Our fallen world, to be sure, needs a few heroes, but very few.  The rest of us must leave it to the ones who are called to it, the ones for whom no other way is possible.  Their sins are against the personal life, the life of common decency that justice would protect. And we who cannot leave the personal life behind, who must protect our sustenance and our progeny in order to be good, are not off the hook.  Though we must own our besetting sins, we must also harken to the call of our besetting virtues.

In the Unitarian salvation text of Dickens, the recovering Scrooge praises the moderately wealthy man in whose service he had once toiled. "He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil" -- and Fezziwig uses that power to bring happiness.  He is not asked to liquidate his business and give the proceeds away, but to use his accumulation of devotion and fortune to bring hope where there would otherwise be despair.  That is the conversion in which Scrooge labors -- not to become another denizen of the poorhouse, but to use his power for relief of those who are or might be lost.

Justice demands power.  If you're reading this, you have power.  You and I are privileged people; all the most radical theologians say so.  We know what we will eat next, and where tonight's shelter will be.  The question is, what will we do with our power?  If we give our power away to someone else, then that is our mortal choice, for which we will be forever judged.

This is the lesson learned in Gardner's play by Murray Burns, the hilarious and unemployed guardian about to lose custody of his nephew.  It's charming to be the hero (and perhaps, as Murray does, you'll get the girl in the end; or as Yeshua did, have a new religion named in your honor).  But first you must learn a lesson from your dull and sober brother Arnold, who is always asked to pick up the pieces because he has the means to do so.  He is the best possible Arnold Burns.  And that, for Murray's purposes, turns out to be a very good thing indeed.

The Good Samaritan traveled with ready money and had excellent credit.***  Yeshua himself depended on the kindness of strangers.  We are called to be such strangers.



***Margaret Thatcher: "No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions; he had money too." (TV interview for London Weekend Television Weekend World (January 6, 1980)

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