Tuesday, December 31, 2013

real life

We just borrowed . . . during a desperate time.  We had no way of knowing that all the times would be desperate.

-- "The Jump," The Middle, November 13, 2013

There is one thing that should not be scarce, that should in fact increase, and that is good and pleasurable and decent work.

-- Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling*

I once heard the chairman of one of those academic theatre departments where I spent much of my life say to his students and the professors, that he had been here more than twenty years and he was still waiting for a regular year. By which he meant a year that was not deformed by some unexpected emergency, so that everybody forgot what the purpose, the real life, of the department was. He was waiting for real life to begin.

It's a different tree in my parlor every December, but the same objects adorn it.  The same lights, the same museum-store stars and snowflakes, the same lustrous paper globes made in China and acquired I know not how or when. Some people make the Christmas tree anew each year, but that is not our way. The tree is supposed to take us back in time. To what?

Whenever I die, I would have lived ten years longer if I hadn't been a homeowner. It's been hard to stay in the middle class.

Ehrenreich pegged us: we belong to the managerial middle-class. Those misérables of vast accountability and scant power, those villeins who hold the title of "manager," are our brothers and sisters.

But I'm not a manager, I say. I'm a do-gooder. I'm not charged with quotas for the production of widgets. I don't feed my children by inducing others to do things, always faster, that they nor I would otherwise do.

No no. We are creatures of a different sort, and our own masters. We make the world better. We serve our hearts' intuition of paradise; and we plan to come home in the evening proud, nourished by our good deeds. We are teachers, academics, pastors, social workers, artists, journalists, tellers of truth, doctors to the poor, comforters of the afflicted. We are professionals. For the greater good of course. Ad maiorem dei gloriam.

The right to choose our rewards, to prosper either financially or morally, is our middle-class pretension. Some endure their work for the sake of its compensation, but we are the ones who endure their compensation for the sake of the work. We feel entitled to a secure if modest place in the middle class. We don't expect to be rich, but at least god help us we shall not be poor. We have our degrees and our diplomas and our certificates, those prizes that can never be taken away, and we expect by diligence, education and purity, to succeed as breadwinners.

But staying in the middle class has been a brutal ordeal. Nobody told us how hard this would be.

I've owned four houses, and sold each of them for more than we paid. But the surplus from each house went to pay the debts we had contracted to live there. We never got ahead. This is how it works.

You had to buy a house because if you didn't you weren't middle-class. And because you would be passing up a tax deduction. And because your kids had to go to good schools. So you had two options: you could pay private school tuition, or you could buy the cheapest house in the expensive neighborhood where the schools were good. To buy that cheapest house you forked over every penny you had, would have or could imagine ever having; then you paid forty-percent of your monthly paycheck to live in it. You were amazed the bank would let you do this, but the bank didn't care, they would sell your mortgage six months later to a hedge fund in Hong Kong. You had nothing left over to start a college fund, or (lol) to save for retirement, or to buy a summer home, or to take vacations on the Riviera or at Disney World, or to set aside a fund for future home repairs and maintenance. You didn't own a boat. Your cars (and no, you couldn't survive with less than two) were so old and disgusting that the private police would throw you out of neighborhoods you were invited to visit.  You were not having fun. Your credit cards ballooned. Sometimes the kids got winter coats and you did not.

Then came the day when the boiler died, or the roof leaked, or the plumbing went rotten; you learned why that cheapest house had come to you so cheap. Since you had no slush fund to meet such expense, you took out another loan, because the community would punish you if you didn't take care of your house, would expose you as a deadbeat who didn't deserve to live in a middle-class neighborhood: the next time your infrastructure failed, you wouldn't be able to get that loan.

Meanwhile you and your children were running with people and their children who lived in a different world, people who took ski vacations in Colorado or Switzerland, people whose take-home pay leaped upward when their "year-to-date" exceeded the maximum payments to Social Security and Medicare. I have never in my life experienced that upward leap.

And you had to keep up. If you looked poor they would kick you out of the caravan and leave you by the roadside. I once received a letter from my agent, saying that there was nothing wrong with my talent but that my wardrobe was unbelievably shabby, and that I needed immediately to acquire several thousand dollars worth of new clothes: this many suits of such colors and fabrics, sweaters and dress shirts and ties, shoes and socks of such colors and qualities, where to buy them and in what combinations. As I read that letter the plastic in my wallet began to hiss and pop.

I felt one step ahead of the bailiff, five minutes from the jailhouse. What is this jail you're afraid of? asked a therapist.  Debtors' prison, I said, don't let anybody tell you it doesn't exist any more. Like Tennessee Ernie Ford, I was another year older and deeper in debt. And having no fun. Every year, like James Stewart in Vertigo, we hung from the gutter by our fingertips, waiting for the whole assembly to detach and fling us into some shameful void. And o come o come Emmanuel we longed for a regular year.  We wondered if real life would ever begin for us, the life our neighbors seemed to be living, the life where you paid your mortgage and fed and clothed yourself and set aside some other money for a rainy day and prepared for the future that you and your kids might inhabit as a citizen rather than a sojourner. And it wouldn't have to be a miracle.

Each December we looked at the tree and, with the help of a few beers, gave cautious thanks that we weren't in jail yet. It was, despite incremental changes in the cast of ornaments, the same tree; it carried us back to those past years which, though they had teemed with their own horrors, seemed safe in memory because we had survived them.

The past, in one sense, is always disappointing; but in another sense it is always safe, which is why we feel such liberty to condemn it. However horrible the annus horribilis, we knew that we had survived. I had not gone to jail that year, which meant it had been a mild year after all, unlike the beastly year that hissed and roared before me, the year to come in which for sure . . . .

Well, never mind.

So now I do not own a home. I do not own a car. I pay my rent and take a subway to work. I'm still paying off the debts I took out to get the kids through college, but no more of those unpayable bills are coming in.  I live in the New Jerusalem, a city of God with twelve gates where the nations come to visit, or to make a new life. The savings I did not know how to tap and deplete on houses, my 401K and my SSI and my pensions, are now available; it's my money now, and if the balance of the month is a bit in the red I can go find a bit of that cash. I look at the same old red and white lights, the same snowflakes and stars and angels, the same lustrous Chinese paper globes, and am reasonably sure that I will not be in jail next year. If by some chance I die this year, I won't die in jail.

Maybe this was a regular year.

Maybe my real life has begun.

There are others who are still waiting.

*Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), p, 260

Sunday, October 13, 2013

sistine chapel

If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all.

-- Mk 9:35 (REB)

I’m looking at an artifact of my father’s, hanging on the wall, a triptych of scenes from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In the center panel, God reaches out toward the inert hand of Adam, about to transfer the spark of life. On the right and left, God has his closeups, his one-shots: creating the sun and moon on the left, separating heavens from earth on the right. For some reason, the face of God creating the lights of heaven, the one on the left, seems angry.

He rendered those scenes in black and white, no grays, printed from linoleum blocks whose surface he cut away with special tools to reveal the figures. So the lines and shapes have no modulation; the terminator between dark and light is absolute, like shadows on the moon.

These majestic shapes of God, rendered by my father, are inseparable for me from my father himself. He still floats in featureless space with no visible support, ordering the firmament with his gestures and moods.

He was more than this forbidding majesty. My children never knew that he had once been a goofy man, clowning and punning, pranking and cracking wise -- a six-foot-four elf, gangly and awkward, who made my mother and me laugh till we could not breathe. Addicted to language, he initiated me into word games that left the rest of the family behind, sometimes in tears.

In his study I saw my first brick-and-plank bookcases; in no other home did I see so many books, too many for a polite single cabinet. They towered over me in various languages ancient and modern; but because they belonged to him they were my friends. I could not meet them all on their own terms, but was sure that when I got older they would speak to me.

He wrote his sermons the night before, until two or three in the morning, and while he wrote he would play Beethoven or Wagner, Bach or Brahms, Marian Anderson or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, at penetrating volume. And when the music woke me I would turn and go back to sleep, secure in the knowledge that the shepherd was awake and vigilant below, a man of God in the midst of God’s work. Schafe können sicher weiden, wo ein guter Hirte wacht.

But the faces of God in his triptych, suspended in darkness, are forbidding. Under each panel an inscription in Greek. In the beginning was the Word. And the Word became flesh. He made his home among us.

These were his Christmas cards to his congregation. Stern faces of God floating in darkness. Texts in an ancient language. He might as well have gone on to say, The world did not recognize him. It’s the perfect summation of his love and disdain, wisdom and folly, vision and blindness.

I imagine myself receiving this opus from my minister. What a downer. What are these letters at the bottom? What’s he trying to say? Who does he think he is? Does he even care whether we understand him? Some of those who admired him would say to me, he’s so much more than a parish minister. Now I think he was so much other.

I once asked him why he sent the verses in Greek. How would the congregants understand them? “Maybe it’ll make them curious,” he said. “Maybe they’ll read the Bible for once.” Every pastor suffers in the ministry, and he suffered exquisitely.

I could never get rid of this triptych, and now it hangs in my parlor. So well done, so severe, so sophisticated, so learned, so good for my wall, so bad for the purpose intended. I could never get rid of this triptych, so eloquent of him and speechless to the souls in his charge, because it speaks to me, and of me. I too love my books, and grieve for the loss of them. I too feel their call when I am too long away from them. I’ve been too long away from them.

No one compelled him, in his generation of ministerial formation, to take on the work that I have taken on. Nowadays there are requirements -- but then I suppose it was understood that if you knew the Bible, you knew how to give counsel. The thing we begin to learn on the first day, and continue to learn on the second, the third, the hundredth, the thousandth and again tomorrow morning, is that I am not in the center of it all. My knowledge is not the good news that might come today. My stuff is not the thing that is to do. I’m supposed to do my homework, then put it away and go to work.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

foot soldiers

photo: Richard Apple

Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war!

-- Sabine Baring-Gould

“We are soldiers in freedom’s army,” we’re singing; “we have to fight, sometimes we have to die.” We stand by the side of an Alabama highway, at the gravestone of a martyr.* Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot and mortally wounded by an Alabama state trooper in February of 1965, because he and other black citizens had attempted, on many occasions, to register as voters. His death incited events in the following month that became known as the March from Selma to Montgomery.

“Every morning they thought they were going to war,” says our songleader. And we sing some more: “You’ve got to hold up freedom’s banner; you’ve got to hold it up till you die.” And many died.

The Campaign required training, discipline and courage. Large groups, or individuals alone, advanced on cue into mortal danger. Amidst mayhem and temptations to revenge, they behaved by strict protocols. Their actions of resistance sometimes required a quartermaster’s grasp of logistics: the Montgomery Bus Boycott depended on maintaining an alternative transportation system for a year.

“Troublemakers,” they were called, if they were local; or if they came from somewhere else they were called “outside agitators.” They disturbed what had passed for peace.  But there was no peace, and those who defended the phony peace were false prophets. The state was at war with its people.  

Foot-soldiers, they called themselves. Now they call themselves veterans. They were in the army, fighting a war. They were, in the best sense of an old hymn not included in the hymnal of my church, Christian soldiers, with the cross of Jesus going on before them.

Lions do not naturally lie down with lambs, and non-violent resistance does not make the enemy become peaceful. Over and over again, the lions responded with greater levels of violence. The foot soldiers were told that they would be attacked, injured or perhaps killed. There was no hope that the forces arrayed against them would dissolve; the purpose of the campaign was to draw out and expose the violence that lay hidden, camouflaged by a culture of repressive civility. The foot soldiers were there to display the phoniness of peace.

The campaign was a power-play. At Little Rock, at Selma, at Oxford and many other places, the hearts of the oppressors did not melt. Victories were secured only when the greater power of America was brought to bear on local outrages, when the war between states and their people was transformed into a war between the United States and the most barbarous of its states. The lions would not lie down with lambs until humbled by hosts of the Prince of Peace, a role played reluctantly and provisionally by three presidents. The humbling of the lions would take place not over weeks and months but over years and decades, and is still incomplete. There are bullet-holes in Jackson’s monument; and the monument of James Chaney, murdered in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, is supported by a steel brace to keep it from being knocked over again.

There is another song, whose words were written by a woman of my faith. This song, during the time of our greatest influence in America, became an anthem for the end of slavery. It is a march, sung by soldiers as they went not to metaphorical war but to the actual slaughter of the Civil War, a war made necessary by the aggressive barbarism of slaveholders. It describes the coming of God into the world on behalf of the enslaved. The first twelve words of this song were the last twelve public words of Martin Luther King. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” he said, and stepped down from his last podium. In respect for King and for those whose hopes he expressed, in solidarity with the long liberation struggle of enslaved Americans, we might preserve that song and pass it on to the future. But the song is not in our hymnal. Are our stomachs too delicate to tolerate God’s participation in justice, by tenderness when possible but by power when necessary? If so, we are bowdlerizers of Dr. King.

Middle-class white folks like myself, half a century later, trying out our expressions of solidarity from seminar tables and from the multi-purpose rooms of churches which do not expect to be bombed or burned, must keep clearing our spectacles of romance. Though the people we commemorate were peaceful in their tactics, the terror did not stop through any softening of the oppressors’ hearts. As his sin was exposed to the world, Pharoah became more outrageous. The strategy of the non-violent campaign was to call in the cavalry before mass slaughter could occur. That was the great wager: no one could be sure, until it happened, that the cavalry would come. The movement was always aimed over the heads of the oppressors; we must rejoice that the leaders’ assessment of national character was correct. The oppressors only changed their minds when new laws were declared, and the nation’s powers and principalities showed themselves willing, on occasion at least, to enforce such law. We should feel remorse that our nation colluded with violence toward its people for so long; we should rejoice that our powers dismantled those systems of violence when they were brought so far into light. Our minds must contain both these passions.

Let us honor non-violence but not romanticize it. They didn’t stroll, or meander, or dally or hike from Selma to Montgomery. It wasn’t a peregrination, or a wandering, or a waltz on Washington. It was a march. They were soldiers. If we hope to be solid with them, we have to be OK with that.

*This is a station on the Living Legacy Pilgrimage (www.uulivinglegacy.org), which I followed from Sept. 21 to 28.

Friday, September 20, 2013

just war

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

-- Christopher McQuarrie, The Usual Suspects

It's obvious to me there is evil in the world. There are things at work --  or a beast at work with many heads -- that won't be contained in a catalogue of mistaken ideas, or misunderstandings, or errors of judgment. Srebrenica was not a colorful experiment in alternative politics, Wounded Knee was not a misspeaking, and Amritsar and Sharpeville were not good ideas badly executed. I am coming to believe that this beautiful world cannot be effectively described without the words evil and sin.

Because it is obvious to me there is evil, I cannot be a pacifist. Because violence is contagious, one must respond to evil with the least possible violence; and yet, because of evil’s nature, least possible may mean a considerable amount. Evil presents us with a menu of options that reek to heaven. Such a menu is before the president today, concerning a fabricated nation called Syria. Whatever his decision, innocent people will die because of it. Doing nothing is one of those choices, but is not categorically more pure than the others. It’s just one of the bloody alternatives.

In recent times we have seen sin forced to retreat without physical violence. The victories of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and of the Indian National Congress, are among those signal human achievements. Because of such victories we can make out in history’s long arc the silhouette of moral progress. The people who won those victories are prophets. The places where they put their lives in hock to mayhem and forced cruel gods to forgive the debt are holy.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Non-violent resistance takes its place on the continuum of warfare. We can measure its force in the enragement and accelerated violence of oppressors, relieved only by the intervention of greater powers. Innocent witness sometimes disarms a tyrant, but only after casualties, and much depends on the nature of the tyrant. King and Gandhi were shrewd warriors, betting their cause on fine appraisal of the oppressor’s character and its contradictions. They wagered many lives and their sacred honor on that analysis. There was something in British Imperial culture that, when forced to choose, would not condone (though it could not definitively condemn) a deliberate slaughter of innocents. There was something in the Constitution of America that, when forced in a theatrical moment to choose, could not place a seal of approval on abuse of children who asked (so politely) to go to school. The force of empire in one case, and of federal government in the other, was brought to bear at a specific moment for justice.

In both cases, tyrants of a simpler character would have responded very differently. The way of Assyrian emperors and Syrian presidents, European Fuehrers and Asian Great Leaders, tribal chiefs and bloody-minded barons, is to scorch those plots of earth where their power is disputed. The ancient function of armies, though not the last and best, is to terrorize the people. The general way of history is not to stop at dogs and fire-hoses. The great majority of tyrants, like Mao or Herod or Bashar al-Assad, are willing to kill until there is no one left to protest, or even to remember what was protested. They will keep it up until they have achieved their false version of peace; or until a greater and we hope more gracious power intervenes.

If an army arrives on the scene therefore, as in Little Rock in 1957, not to slaughter the innocents but to escort them into the schoolhouse, they commit a sacred aberration of history, a hiccup in the remorseless waltz of power. The infrastructure of justice is hard-won, recent and fragile, and every thug knows how to break it; and so we must memorialize such aberrations for future generations lest they forget.

There are just wars, but they are always tragic, because if we have to go to war it means that the peace has been lost and evil has, at least for a time, already triumphed. How many generations are we willing to condemn, in order to keep our own hands clean? We all want peace, but those who cry peace, peace when there is no peace are the false prophets.* Evil then compels us to do terrible things in the name of a better future.

Among the requirements of just war are: that it be waged to prevent a demonstrable evil, and by a governmental authority that allows for judgments about right and wrong; that there is a reasonable chance of success, and the struggle will stop when the objective has been attained; that violence will not be deliberately inflicted on the innocent.

Among the just wars waged by the government of the United States are the American Civil War and World War II. This is not to say we waged them innocently, for there is no innocence in warfare. This is not to say that they achieved their whole objective, for both left new regimes of injustice in place. This is not to say that they were morally safe, for in both cases our people sinned enormously, in an exponential coarsening of character that should make us grateful that neither conflict continued a day longer. There’s no telling, if we had fought for another few months, what we would have been willing to do in the name of peace. Nevertheless, but by a close margin, these were just wars that ended mighty regimes of violence.

The Civil Rights Movement and the Indian Liberation Struggle take their places in the catalogue of just warfare.  They are wars of liberation, and just ones. They achieved victories by unusual means, asking the troops to march into mortal danger without inflicting such danger on their enemies. These victories are modern events, possible because because humanity has created, here and there and not always in the United States, forces and institutions that expose and then restrain the natural rapacity and bloodlust of politicians. The British Empire was not the Assyrian Empire. The United States is not North Korea. The purpose of each engagement was to expose the violence inherent in the system. Words and images of that violence went out to the wider world, calling on higher and larger powers to countermand local corruptions. The grand strategy of peaceful protest is for scrutiny to domesticate, and armies when necessary to restrain, the feral instincts of politicians.

Real soldiers, having gone to war, do not wish to go again, and a moral nation goes to war, if it must do so, reluctantly. A civilized nation has capacity to distinguish, though it may fail to do so, between just and unjust wars; because in every war the soul of the nation is at risk, the danger growing with every day that passes. Colin Powell insisted that American troops never be committed without an exit strategy.** Caspar Weinberger insisted that, if the nation goes to war, it has a moral duty to win as quickly as possible.*** The campaign must have what wargamers call “victory conditions,” marking the completion and end of war. The generals must plan to bring the soldiers home, because the purpose of just war is peace -- a peace that, unlike false peace, can be lived with. An open-ended war is never a just war, and a war against a nebulous entity like “Terror” is a recipe for depravity.

It seems now that our Civil War never ended. Racism and its ally ignorance are raising regimental banners throughout the country, and particularly in states of the Confederacy. Our liberal anti-racist discourse, focussing on institutional as opposed to personal racism, has been caught off-guard; for the spectre we see now, rising from benches of Congress and from houses of state government, is personally and transparently hateful. A new aggression has been launched, and the voting rights of Americans are under attack. We must defend ourselves, our neighbors and our children. It is a just campaign. In the traditions of Powell and Weinberger, we must commit the forces necessary to win, and soon -- and then resume the peace.

The most powerful weapons we can bring to the field of contest are the ones we too often surrender to the enemy: the Christian Gospel, the Jewish Scripture and the founding documents of the United States. There are other works of literature, philosophy and spirituality, documents full of insight and inspiration. Each of us has the right to pick their personal favorite. But the Tea Party does not quail before the Bhagavad Gita or the Analects. They fear Matthew 25.

A proper campaign needs victory conditions and an exit strategy. We are here, like warriors of the previous Civil Rights Movement, to challenge and destroy corrupt laws, and to shame those in power who created and now defend them. Racism is however an amorphous term, changing its definition with time and place. Like Terror, Racism cannot be erased from the catalogue of human sinfulness, and our campaign, like all wars even just ones, will leave some things undone. If our objective is to end sin, we will never enjoy peace; but we can hope, like the warriors before us, to produce a peace that can be lived with. The veterans of fifty years ago know that, though the world is far from perfect, they were victorious.

We want to judge and be judged by our character. If white people sometimes “forget” that Oprah is black, isn’t that a good thing? Wouldn’t a lot of young black men, entering a store, hope that the detective forgets to say “There’s a black punk"? The one hope is already realized; the other lies still in the plan of march. To forget this purpose is to lose our way, as our nation lost its way struggling to protect the people from terrorism.  

There will come a day when Americans fear something else more than they fear Islamic suicide bombers, and there might come another day when a young black man has more pressing worries than whether some fool has prejudged him as a criminal. I have seen the daughter of a murdered civil rights worker,**** who never met her father, say that she has no hatred in her heart. I marvel that she has found peace, and I know that warriors of the present day must want peace if they are to win the war. We will have to define some big objectives, win some big victories, and then be prepared to stop. That’s what peace means.

*Jeremiah 6:14: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (NIV)

**Point 5 of eight in the “Powell Doctrine.”

***Point 2 of 6 in the “Weinberger Doctrine.”

****Angela Lewis, daughter of James Chaney

Thursday, August 1, 2013

not guilty

We the jury find George Zimmerman not guilty.

-- Sanford, Florida, July 13 2013

All men are created equal.

-- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 4 1776

My heart is broken. I haven't been so sick in my soul since the massacres of May, 1970, at Kent State University and Jackson State College, when America killed its children and cheered. We're still killing our kids, and particularly when they're black we cheer about it.

It's dangerous to be black in America. Particularly if you're a black man, the country is ready to beat you or kill you, and then give sanctuary to your attackers. There are plenty of out and out racists who will make sure the law protects the killers -- racists not in the institutional but in the good old fashioned biblical, personal and individual sense, their logic so warped by nasty folklore and cultivated hatred that they can't imagine what it's like to be hunted in your own neighborhood when you've done nothing out of the ordinary.

There are stories about getting a traffic ticket for the crime of Driving While Black. In New York our police officers have beaten or killed a series of innocent black men. In Florida they killed a young man for the crime of being Alive While Black.

It's been three weeks now and I can't get over it. I don't know what to say to a black parent. Van Jones wonders if his son has to wear a tuxedo to the store so that he won't be found suspicious; but I think a black man in a tuxedo in a convenience store might be taken as uppity, and many a black man has been killed in America for being uppity. Overdressing is not the answer.  

How can you live in a country that counts you as suspicious wherever you go, whatever you wear, whatever you do or don't do? that sends gunslingers to watch your neighborhood, hoodlums who pick fights but who don't know how to fight without deadly force? How can I tell my neighbors to be peaceable, when the law is at war with them? I have no standing to give such advice. There are many millions of racists in America, and they look like me. How can I live with such a country?

This should be the new and strangely simple test of our public officials, our lawyers, our pastors, teachers, our friends, our judges and our jurors. Anyone who thinks there is equivalence here, some subtle balance between the boy who was killed and the man who pursued him with a gun in order to use the gun against him -- any such persons stand in a long tradition of complicity. Such people are the heirs of Bull Connor and Orval Faubus and Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam and Byron De La Beckwith.

The judgment of reason is clear. The boy was where he had a right to be. He was unarmed. He is dead.  There is no justification for his death. No evidence was presented that he was doing anything wrong. He was pursued by an unidentified man with a gun. Perhaps he stood his ground, and was shot dead for doing so. This was not an unfortunate accident. It was not a tragedy. It was a malicious act of violence with racial motivation. Acquitting the killer completes a lynching.

Emmett Till (1941 - 1955)
Trayvon Martin (1995 - 2012)

So how indeed do people of my social location live with such a country? These days I do not know.

Many years ago, when television stations would sign off at night after the late late show, a network affiliate in the city where I lived closed its programming with images not of aircraft carriers and warplanes, but of mountains and rivers, forests and skylines. The music was not the national anthem but the song that ought to be the national anthem, and the singer was a black man. "Oh beautiful," Ray sang, "for heroes proved/in liberating strife,/who more than self their country loved/and mercy more than life." Later I learned that he made this recording with the death of heroes in mind -- of Martin and Malcolm, of Evers and Till and Chaney and Goodman and Schwerner and Liuzzo and Jackson and of my own church's James Reeb. "America, America! God shed his grace on thee." It occurred to me that the singer felt these deaths had mattered, had somehow made America beautiful, bringing good out of evil. "And crown thy good/with brotherhood!"

And nowadays I think that if Ray Charles loved the country so much that he found a way to sing about it, then perhaps I lack standing to abandon her. I don't fully understand his love. Or the love of those eight hundred men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry who made the Civil War a moral struggle against slavery. Or the love of those nine children in Little Rock in 1957 whose courage and moral dignity were so much more than we deserved. Or the love of those millions around me who live honorably in a nation that dishonors them, teaching responsibility to their children though the nation declares those children expendable. No, I don't understand such gifts.

But I'm old enough to know that I don't have to understand everything. We are blessed, and can't do a thing about it. The sun shines on the wicked and the righteous, and on the rest of us muddled in between.

Monday, July 15, 2013

great man

When I know what I think, I couldn’t care less.  It’s when I don’t know what I think, when I’m utterly baffled, . . . that's when I have to keep thinking.

-- Herbert Blau* (1926 - 2013)

He made me feel ignorant. He thought I was smart.

Thirty years ago I spent crucial parts of a summer in his company. There were eight of us,** and we sat in a seminar room with him twice a week for four hours, while each of us worked on our project -- some kind of a thought-project -- that had something to do with the theatre. Or with issues that were at stake in the theatre. Or in media. Or in fashion. Or in literature. Or in mimesis of any kind. Or in semiology. Or in epistemology.

And he talked. Not in circles but in spirals. Round and not quite round he'd go, leaning off his center in a direction we struggled to divine.

He was a historic man of the theatre. And he was done with it, but was still working it through, in his mind, his gut, his gutty mind. And he had read everything. Not just plays, but all of literature it seemed. And music. And philosophy. And history. And he didn't really understand how anybody could do theatre without having such learning. He thought that anybody who set out just to "do" theatre should be ashamed of themselves; and he had said so, in prominent places and to prominent people.

Perhaps that was why, when he came to New York in 1968 with Julius Irving his collaborator from San Francisco, to head the Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center, it went badly for him in a way that he never stopped churning about. It was the thoughtlessness of American theatre and culture, its lack of concern for what it might be trying to do or for what others might be doing through it, and how those purposes open or covert affect the means of doing theatre, that made him nauseous. And when he talked at his higher level, when he confused the complacent categories of showbiz in his spiraling, he may have just left the public behind, or at least the smaller public of Manhattan criticism.

And I was a fundamentalist. I had seen too many professors who couldn't as we used to say "direct their way out of a paper bag," but could explain how you were wrong if you named their failure -- that you hadn't understood their "concept," and if you had read some more books you'd understand how brilliant it was. So all I cared about in the theatre was how to do it right, and I didn't want to hear about  how many books you'd read if you couldn't play the notes of the theatre, or even locate the keyboard. Insecure and immature, I was desperate to get my hands on the keyboard, and to practice the scales and arpeggios of an art that seemed to give clear answers without appeal. If no one laughs, the comedian sucks. If they tug at their collars while you intone the immortal soliloquy, you deserve a tomato in the face. Don't complicate it, I thought. Complication is just a cover-up. Entertain me or die.

But the Thinking Artist was an act that, unlike most of those who attempt it, Herb actually brought off. He was just too restless for brie and chablis. He would take us through the great texts of Beckett, word by word, not commenting but exhibiting how those words still shook him up. He took us through the Shakespeare sonnets that had already forced out of him a work of theatre. He exposed us to the avant-garde of the previous decade, who had presented performances that were perhaps not performances, but then what was a performance? and for whom? and why? and to what effect?  All this not to justify his work but to show that it was still working on him. I could never really get to goodness or badness, success or failure; what he respected was the "inarguable," the thing that won't be criticized except on its own terms; the thing that can't be different than it is without becoming something else.

So now I started to understand that I was in the presence of someone who had done historic work, but that it wasn't a special knowledge of the theatre that made it so. He wasn't playing to the house but to history. The theatre was something he had learned so that he could do something with it; and by the time I knew him he had left it behind and was learning other things. In his ethic, means cannot be justified without the ends. You can succeed or fail at anything, but you'd better know what you're trying to do, which always means knowing the thousand things you're not trying to do.  I heard him say, "I only argue with what I respect," and if you wanted to do work that Herb would argue with it would take a lot more than knowledge of showbiz.

He made me feel ignorant. I went on a crash course of reading that would last me fourteen years, a course in all things I had to know about before I could know what I was doing: history, philosophy, music, painting and sculpture, and eventually scripture. And after that, a kind of return to the performance of counseling: the listening, the naming, the blessing and the journey toward what is Inarguable, and won't be explained away.

He was a great man and he did some great things; and I have done perhaps some good things in small places. I've made a living in the theatre but not much good work there; I've done my best work in other arenas. Like Herb, I went elsewhere than show business to do what needed to be done, and in that sense I followed him. He keeps me thinking.

*interviewed by Nancy Joseph in University of Washington Perspectives (September, 2011)

**Summer Fellows in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

young rabbi

Let there be no compulsion in religion.

-- Quran 2:256 (trans. Yusuf Ali)

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one cometh unto the Father, but by me.

-- John 14:6 (KJV)

For a long time he sat with the man, whose mind was slowly decomposing, who was forgetting his English and reverting to Spanish, an old Catholic man from Puerto Rico who loved the Bible.  So the young rabbi took up the Spanish Bible that lay on the night table and read from it phonetically.  He read psalms, those songs shared by two faiths, and when he was done the old man looked up at him and said, "You touched my heart."

Something had taken its course.

"You didn't read him anything about Jesus," said the aide.

She'd been listening.  Not for what was there, but for what was not there.  And then began an argument that the rabbi did not want.

It doesn't take two to make a fight: if they're throwing punches at you, you're in a fight whether you like it or not, and the only question is how you will conduct it.  You can conciliate and compromise and negotiate if you wish, or you can leave the field, but there's no sharing with those whose purpose is to deprive you of place, and if you don't defend your turf you encourage the bullies.

You don't want to use a nuclear option.  You don't want to escalate the conflict.  So the question is, how to defend your square foot of ground, and your right to stand in it, without enlarging the skirmish into war.

"Jesus is his savior.  And yours."

The rabbi tried to explain that Jesus, the Jewish prophet, was not his personal savior, but that there was much to share, including the scripture known to Jesus, with those who believe he is their savior.  But the aide wasn't interested in sharing.

I've heard and read scholars and pastors of such erudition and courage, integrity and passion, such rigor in facing the historicity of scripture and yet recovering its sacredness, that they make me feel that I could call myself a Christian; but the deeply seated exclusiveness of the Christian claim stands in my way.  If you believe, I say, that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus, then how can I sit down with you?  You've just told me there is no such place at the table.  I want to sit with you, but you'll have to provide the place -- you'll have to deny the offending verse or stuff it back in the closet.

I can usually avoid theological hand-to-hand.  People in trouble mostly don't care what color your collar is or if you're wearing one: they can use the help.  They say "All our prayers go to the same place."  They say "We play different positions but we're on the same team."

But now and then there is an interrogator in the family, who wants to know whether I think rightly about Jesus and enjoy the proper relationship with him.  For such a person I am wrong from the start.  Yeshua himself was a  young rabbi,* and I can't imagine he cares much whether I get his name right.  He cared much more about whether I would feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted, and many of those admitted to the reign of God don't even know his name.  Though I don't want to fling Scripture-bombs, I have scriptural authority for my position.**  There's no point in arguing, but the young rabbi's patient was grateful for what had been given him, and the aide had no authority, no standing to dispute it.  He could be kind about it, but he could not win her assent.

In my own church I have encountered a different militancy, from those who used to dominate the movement and are losing their outsized power -- the people who think that if you never say the word "God" you can commit no sin.  The number of killings in the name of the "people" during the previous century's industrial-scale slaughters surely exceeds the last thousand years' sum of murders in the name of God.  (There were fewer people to kill in the old days, and less efficient ways of finding and dismembering them.)  And if we intend to be solid with the oppressed, we must respect their trope of liberation, their identification with the chosen people whom, according to scripture, God and a prophet moved out of Egypt through exile and eventually into a Land of Promise.  Dr. King came to the Lincoln Memorial fifty years ago not as a social worker but as a preacher; instead of reading demographic tables, he testified to the rolling of God's justice like mighty waters, speaking the very words of biblical prophecy.  I do not please atheist militants by pointing out the importance of prophetic language.

No argument will defuse militancy.  But one must keep one's dignity.  There is no testimony to faith so commanding as the beauty of one's life.

*Jn 1:37-38: "When the two disciples heard what he said, they followed Jesus. .  . . They said, 'Rabbi,' (which means 'Teacher') where are you staying?'"

**Mt 25:37: "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and fed you, or thirsty and gave you drink?"

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

new jersey

. . . a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

-- Macbeth V. v.

When I came to see her again she was sitting as before in the armchair by her window, looking across the river at New Jersey's bluffs.

She was glad to see me, but she was discouraged.  She didn't see the point of going on.  "What kind of a life is this?"

The are others worse off, I could have said.  She was sitting upright.  She was alert and sharp.  Not in pain at the moment.  No tubes running out of her body.  But if she had been worse off she wouldn't have known her grief, couldn't have described the difference between the live body and the wasting soul, couldn't have brought her crisis into focus.  This is where she was.  You meet them where they are.

"I never wanted to be a burden to others."  Proud and autonomous she was.  The time still to be lived seemed a mockery of everything precious.

We looked across the river together.

I named it.  "You're grieving," I said, "for who you were."

We think grief is for those left behind, but the ones who are leaving grieve as well.  They anticipate the end of loves, the disappearance of possibilities, the finish of tunes whose cadences they will not hear.  The mask won't stick to the face, the body won't perform the old theatrical tricks, and they don't know who they are.  They can't take care of things, and they watch themselves become a thing to be taken care of.  We can assure them it's not like that, but that's how they see it.

The social worker came in to say it was all arranged, the patient was leaving the hospital.  She would go this evening to one of our residences.  "We call it the penthouse.  You can order a filet mignon if you want."  (Clinical irony there, which we usually keep to ourselves, but this client was one of those who crave it.)  She was quite literally going to a better place, with nurses round the clock but with amenities and decor more human than those of the hospital.  And better food.

"Any day you leave a hospital," I said, "is a beautiful day."

"I don't want my money spent," she said, "just to keep me alive."

It was a beautiful day on the bluffs of New Jersey, across the Hudson River.

Here's the hard thing, the thing you have to keep learning.  You can't bring the good news with you.  Not in a book, or in a prayer, or in an exhortation to faith.  You can't bring the good news unless it has already arrived.  You can only, with grace and skill and good fortune, sometimes reveal it.

You want to make things better.  Of course you do.  Anybody would.  Friends and relatives often try.  You say, cheer up, it's not so bad.  You say, have faith.  You say, God doesn't send you more than you can bear.  You can't stand to see them suffer, so you argue.  That's your role, you think -- to vanquish their suffering.  If they don't cheer up, you feel offended and futile.  And your militant cheer defends you from infection.

And this is the simple thing we keep learning, over and over again.  If you're gong to help, you have to enter their world and walk the road with them.  That's where the good news is to be found, somewhere on their path of fear and grief and regret.

"That money was for my niece.  I love that girl more than . . . "

She couldn't finish the sentence, so I ventured.  "Perhaps she already has a gift from you.  Perhaps she wants to give you something in return."

As clouds shifted shape over New Jersey, I thought, I've put my foot in it now.  How could I so lose my nerve? Why commit myself, so soon? Why was I arguing with her?

She didn't know how to own the life that remained to her.  And I couldn't tell her.

That's the rule.  That's what we're supposed to know, and must learn again every day.  It's not a sermon.  It's a revelation, a discovery, an apocalypse.  She says the life ahead of her has no meaning, that it signifies nothing.  But it's not as if there is a something, a significance that should be brought to her.  She doesn't need something; what she needs is negation of the nothing.  If she knew what there was to do, what the next step might be . . . 

"You haven't given up yet.  You love that young woman.  You want to make her life better."

She thought about this.

"We call it generativity -- that as a person nears the end of life, they take care of the youth.  You care about the world that you're leaving.  You're pouring your love into the future."

From a picture window on the ninth floor of a Manhattan hospital, you can see the sun set over New Jersey.

"You've helped me," she said.

I was stunned.

"I feel better than I did when you came.  You didn't argue with me.  You let me live in my sadness.  You didn't try to talk me out of it.  And I feel better."

Can I believe this? it's too good, I thought.  I've talked too much, and been too smart, and now she's seen my vanity, praising me in the tropes of our textbooks, seducing me; -- or else she's saying the things that will get me out of the room.

"We both have places to go," I said.  "You have a new place to live, and I have to go home."

"Be sure you wash your hands on the way out.  Mustn't take any unexpected gifts home from the hospital."

I turned to her.  "You're taking care of me.  You haven't given up."

Sitting up in her chair, she was grinning at me.  I never saw her in a bed.  The record says that an hour after I left, they moved her to the new residence.  An hour after that she died.