Thursday, February 28, 2013

wonderful counsellor

The decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.

-- Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature*

A child has been born for us, . . . and he is named . . . Prince of Peace.

-- Isaiah 9:6 (NRSV)

One of Christianity's great contributions to the world is its dissemination of the Hebrew scripture, of its history, poetry and prophecy.  One of Christianity's great crimes is its misappropriation and willful distortion of that scripture.

Every reader has the right to see his own experience in what he reads.  That's how literature survives, how ars becomes longa.  Every youth maturing into a rotten Denmark can see himself in Hamlet, his "most royal" life postponed by his father's ghost demanding an inconvenient revenge for his own decease.  Is my life really all about you, Dad?  Who among us does not contend with his parent's ghost?  Every raging, shriveling curmudgeon, his reach exceeding his grasp, can see himself in Lear, sinned against by the sycophants he favored, saved by the friends whom he betrayed.  Couldn't you just have said no to me?  Who among us should not have grown wiser before they grew older?

The enslaved have a right to see in the Hebrew exodus a campaign plan of their own liberation.  We have a right to see, in the prophetic longing for peace, a foreshadowing of our own.

Isaiah and Micah gave us the words for peace; swords, they said, would be beaten into plowshares, and the nations would no longer prepare for war, and each person could sit under his own vine and his own fig tree without fear.  The prophetic words can shape our hope because the prophets knew so much about violence, much more than we do.  They spoke for a tiny kingdom besieged by enemies, caught between the hammers of Assyria and Babylon, and the anvil of Egypt.  They saw their city razed, their temple smashed, their homes violated.  Horrible things were done to them, and the horrible things they did in the name of security are recorded in their deuteronomic history.  Israelites and Judeans knew firsthand about violence, and looked forward to peace not as an ideology but as an infrastructure for salvation and survival.

So when Christian pastors say "Jesus is the Prince of Peace,"** they commit cultural crimes of a high order.  They are saying that when the prophets spoke they didn't know what they were speaking about; that the prophets were robots programmed by a disdainful God, speaking nonsense to their own audience but predicting the leader of an unborn religion concealed two thirds of a millennium in the future; such pastors claim ownership of tropes to which they have no right, and attempt to alienate those tropes from their authors.  This appropriation asserts an ancient accusation, that the Jews to whom Jesus came were "his own, and his own people did not accept him" (Jn 1:11), that they babbled about his coming but did not know what they were saying.

Jesus was not the Prince of Peace.  Or rather, the Prince of Peace is not Jesus.  Jesus appears to have been a peaceable fellow, to the great disappointment of some of his disciples.  But the Prince of Peace would have been, among other things, a military hero.  If we assume that Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah knew what they were saying, and that what they said was more or less what they meant to say; if we read the prophecies in their entirety, and not just the verses that made it into Handel's Messiah, we learn that the Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counsellor, was a mighty king whose "authority will grow continually," who will re-establish "the throne of David and his kingdom" (Isa 9:7).  Jesus's kingdom was "not from this world" (Jn 18:36), and was founded in weakness, to be inherited by those who suffered for the sake of righteousness; but the Wonderful Counsellor's kingdom would be real, here, now, founded in the power of a righteous and legitimate king.  It was power that would make peace possible.

Has it not always been this way?  Turning the other cheek may be a good way to save a soul for the kingdom of another world, but rarely produces revolution in this one.  Lions do not lie down with lambs unless there is a power to feed and restrain them.  Nevertheless, lions do sometimes lie down with lambs: and our nation founded in racial sin has re-elected its first black president.  This would not have happened if the 101st Airborne division had not gone to Little Rock in the autumn of 1957.  Nor could it have happened without the Civil Right Act of 1965.

The worst thing about Christian usurpation of the prophets is that it conceals what the prophets were trying to tell us: that the world will be saved, not by hoping we will be kind to each other, but by creating institutions, instruments and traditions of justice.  These works of civilization are never perfect.  They're just the best we've got so far, which is no small thing to say.

*The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011), p. 692.

**"Become Doers of Peace," Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, Sojourners (February, 2013), p. 22.

Monday, February 18, 2013

rocket science

We must act knowing that today’s victories will be only partial.

--Barack Obama, January 21, 2013

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

-- Matthew 5:48 (NRSV)

How could the founders have declared that all men are created equal while owning and exploiting human flesh?

On the other hand, how could they not?

Ask it the other way around.  How could a nation that bought, sold and exploited human beings declare that all men are created equal, turning its future against itself? Isn't it strange? Isn't it remarkable?

It all depends on the order of your thoughts, on what you take for granted and what you choose to be surprised at.

Fernand Braudel subtitled one of his works of social history "The Limits of the Possible."  What he meant was that the physical and social structures of everyday life present a limited menu of choices.*  You can't for instance choose -- it's almost impossible to imagine -- private life in a world where there are no private spaces.  Which is why Western individualism was born in the envious lust of lower classes for the privacy of aristocrats, who were once the only people who could shut a door when they wanted to.  Bourgeois and working-class imitations of the baron's castle -- the detached home with multiple chambers and doors, the expensive and laborious "yard" or "garden" -- made it possible to re-conceive privileges of the well-born as universal human rights.  Bonaparte and Adam Smith described England as a nation of shopkeepers, but it was the shopkeepers of America who charted their nation on a map of unalienable rights.

For the founders, Eden wasn't on the menu.  Some of them owned human flesh directly, and the rest had profited indirectly from such ownership.  They could declare 1) a country that was tainted with slavery, or they could declare 2) no country at all.  Those were their two lamentable choices, and yet out of their colloquy came a remarkable third choice: "2b" we might call it.  They declared a country that was both soiled by slavery and pledged to universal, unalienable rights.  This act was a contradiction, but I rejoice that they chose it rather than either of the internally consistent options before them.

There's no question which of our two propositions was heard round the world, as Emerson put it.  Slavery was already on the defensive, an embarrassment among the nations, and we have spent two centuries of blood and treasure, prophecy and confession, abolishing it and owning its legacy.  In that time our declaration went round the world, inspiring good and bad revolutions, resounding in the texts of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Universal Declaration of human rights.

So I am glad that someone wrote that document; for without it, or something very much like it, the modern ideas of justice and civil peace could never have entered the world.  I rejoice that the person who wrote it, with help from a committee, was an American.  I am happy that the American who wrote it was no outlier but an eventual president.  And I am proud that the author was, like me, a Unitarian.  I am not proud that he owned slaves, that he fathered children by a person who had no power to refuse him, or that his writing, his research, his architecture and his politics were financed with stolen labor.

As an adult living in the real world, it is my obligation to distinguish between good and evil, particularly as they appear in the same person, the same institution, the same nation.  But it's not rocket science.  If we pretend that the distinction is difficult, if we wait for our country, our city, our family, our self to be perfect before we love them we shall wait forever.  Indeed, one of the ancient corruptions of character is to wait for the perfect before committing to what is good.  The good is not a metaphysical but an operational term: "good" means "better than what we have."

Another timeless corruption is proudly to imagine that our present plan of reform will bring an end to history and to sin; to imagine that we are not ourselves sinful as we put it forward, with scores to settle that we have not owned; to fantasize that as we prevail we will not love the power and long to bring down our boots on the necks of adversaries.  Both we and the ancestors are judged; but judgment is a sifting, a separating out of the noble from the shameful in us.  My headmaster used to say that the best of us are molded out of faults,** and since we do not get the noble without the shameful, we must hope that, whatever there is that answers to the name of God, It is merciful.

As a Unitarian I stand in footprints of people who rejected the doctrine of Original Sin, condemning it as immoral and unbiblical.  I don't know whether I speak Burke's conservatism or Niebuhr's liberalism when I say there is a strange loopiness about the world, and there is no place to stand that is not off its kilter and sagging under our weight.  We play, like one of the Mikado's criminals, "on a cloth untrue, with a twisted cue, and elliptical billiard balls," and we know not what we do.  It is this fallenness of the world, and of ourselves in the world, invested from birth as we are in its gripes and grievances, flights of fancy and body noises -- this is what the ancient doctrine tried to describe.  I don't think the world is strange because my first progenitor tried to know right from wrong, but rather that in his reach for knowledge he learned that the world had always already*** gone strange.  Again I remember Beckett's character who said you're on earth, there's no cure for that.

And yet, with our twisted cues and elliptical motives, we must do good, and seek truth.  We must expand our fleeting glories, growing our contained and compromised gardens of virtue into fruitfulness. 

Lady Bracknell said (among other things) that the whole theory of modern education is radically unsound, and it is a blessing therefore that education produces no effect whatsoever.  The harm of education comes when, instead of rewarding the achievement, it punishes the mistake.  I never learned anything valuable without making mistakes; and the learnings that made me what I am came when I allowed myself to get it wrong a hundred times.  Only then could I begin to grow up, for growing up is a risky business, requiring compassionate governance of oneself and guidance from others.  This is how we learn to master an art, or to love a person, or to write an essay.

There are those who lament the extinction of the pen and paper, or more recently the typewriter, both of which devices forced one to think ahead before committing to the word.  But I have thrived in the digital age, when I could plant myself in the middle and enlarge my thoughts forward and backward, setting down any nonsense that comes into my head with the surety that it can be changed, expanded, destroyed, and rearranged as many times as I want before it goes before other eyes.  My mistakes do not signify.  They do not even need to be crossed out.  All that matters is that there is some rightness about the last version.   

So we must own the twistedness of our mothers and fathers, as well as their achievements and their truth, for their truth is inseparable from their twistedness, as ours shall be.  History doesn't present us with the menus we would like, and our choices are usually between unappetizing options.  But some of those options are better than others.  That is to say, some of them are the good choices, the right ones.  And occasionally, in the colloquy of irreconcilable and detestable alternatives, a novel alternative appears, an option 2b that changes life for the better by miraculous birth of a welthistorische contradiction.  And when that happens, we must not be put off by the humility of its birth or the sordidness of its conception.

"Behold," says Isaiah's God (43:19), "I'm doing something new here.  Don't you see it?  Even now it's coming to fruition."  A movie came out recently about Lincoln, that shows him bribing and bullying and lying, so that he can get the thirteenth amendment passed, to make slavery no longer possible in the nation he preserved.  We all know that what followed was not freedom for our brothers and sisters but another century of terror and exploitation, before we began seriously to address the assurance of their rights.  But can we honestly say we are not proud that Lincoln did these things?  As he walks down the hallway, in the scene that should have ended the movie, into the light and on the way to Ford's Theatre, does he not grow larger as he recedes?

It's not rocket science.

*Les structures du quotidien (1967), which was Vol. I of Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe siècle

**He attributed this saying to Abraham Lincoln; but Lincoln must have been quoting Shakespeare (Measure for Measure, V. i.: "Best men are moulded out of faults.")

***"Always already" was of course a strategic phrase of Jacques Derrida, who deconstructed great texts of European philosophy, and was oxymoronically followed by the locusts of Deconstructionism.