“The Holidays,” and most especially Christmas, pose a problem to a great number of people. The reasons are varied: memory of lost loved ones, the scars of unhappy family Christmases past, and, perhaps most widespread, the vaguer sense of never being able to get with the alleged and elusive “spirit” of the season.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t belong to the “bah, humbug” crowd. I really love Christmas. But it’s simply true that Christmas always threatens to disappoint.
How could it not, granted the excessive hype of the cultural celebration? Mothers trying to create the “perfect” Christmas for their children; husbands looking for the gift for their wives that will unlock that special smile from the heart; children expecting that every Christmas will be even better than the last; the perils of family gatherings.
And so, “Blue Christmas” services have sprung up like mini-oases in the bleak mid-winter for those afraid of too much exposure to songs celebrating “the most wonderful time of the year.”
Challenges of the Messianic Promise
The problem goes deeper than the Santa-expectations and the tenuous “magic” of the holidays straight into the heart of the Christian story of Jesus’ birth. After all, he was “born to save us from our sins” and sin still abounds mightily. The angel told Mary that he would “sit on the throne of his father David and rule over the house of Israel forever,” which he may well do in heaven, but on the plane of earthly history his life ended on a Roman cross. ‘
The early community's faith, expressed in the Christmas story, was faced the first and second generations with the problem of unfulfilled promise. Where is the promise of his coming?* they asked—that Coming that would fulfill the promises of the angels, the promises the original disciples had imagined would be fulfilled in Jesus’ own earthly triumph over sin and injustice. As the carol says of the angel’s song:
But with the woes of sin and strife/ The world has suffered long; Beneath the angel-song have rolled/ Two thousand years of wrong**
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a believer. I really love the Christmas stories. But a proclamation of these stories, and of the gospel itself, in forms too cheerfully magical can lead people to great disappointment. Yes, “Jesus saves,” but miraculous transformations are few and far between. Yes, Jesus is “Lord of all the earth” in the upbeat hymn, but millions of Syrian refugees shiver in the cold this Christmas, and people in the Central African Republic die in droves violently every day.
Whatever else it is, neither the gospel nor the Way of Jesus are a panacea for the world Jesus came to save. If we take the Proclamation of the Angels seriously, we must admit that Christmas is not only promise and problem, but also paradox.
Next: Christmas as Paradox
* 2 Peter 3:4
** "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear"by The Rev. Edmund Sears, 1849
One of my godson’s kids wrote Santa with a confession and a hope: even though she had been somewhat naughty this year (her younger brother’s fault, entirely), she very much wanted the list of toys attached. Her tone was one of confident trust that Santa would understand her frank confession and fulfill his promise of largesse to children who are Nice.
Macy’s big holiday advertising campaign centers on “a million reasons
to believe.” Believe in what? Any or all of the following: Savior, Santa,
peace, goodwill, the Christmas (or Holiday) spirit. Believe in the
manifold promises of the season. Christmas, even in its secular “Holiday” forms, is all about promises. The promise of a Savior. The promise that St. Nick, Kinderklaus, Santa will come through again to grant wishes. The promise of “peace, good will toward men.” The promise that if we’re really in the right mood we can tune in to the “spirit” of the season.
Two Ancient Promises
Fair enough, to give the Season its due, for this mood of believing in promises is rooted in two ancient promises. First, the pledge of a Savior “thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins . . . and his kingdom will have no end” which gave birth to the Christian celebration. Second, the even older Solstice promise, in the dark of the year, of the return of light and warmth as the days lengthen, which gave birth to the European Winterfest (Solstice, Yule, Saturnalia) in which Christmas itself is nested.
My mother declined to make any absolute promises to us as children, unlike her mother-in-law who promised much and fulfilled, well, some. In reality, our lives do slowly accumulate unfilled promises, small and great. More and more the intensity of the Holiday Season as well as Christmas for Christians seems to me to arise out of our yearning for the fulfillment of promises in the midst of a world where so many of them are either broken or turn out to be ephemeral.
“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” We yearn. “Peace on earth, and mercy mild.” We hope. “When....shall come the age of gold.” We want so much to believe.
Santa often comes through for kids, so the promise often works. Believing the Yuletide promise also comes easily, so long as there is food and fuel enough to make it alive until the earth springs green again. The promise of Savior and Peaceable Kingdom are a bigger stretch, granted the state of the world and the human soul. Yet the message of the angels is not just a promise, but a challenge: believe.
South Carolina just made the political crisis over the Affordable Care Act (ACA) crystal clear: this is Secession by another name. Their State House of Representatives proposes making any step to implement the Act a punishable crime. This goes along with a new far-right campaign to label ACA itself "criminal."
“Secession,” this time around, is a rebellious refusal to abide by the fundamental rules of the Republic. South Carolina, the Tea Party Caucus, and, for the moment, the Congressional GOP leadership don't want to leave the Union literally. They simply refuse to honor the Constitution’s method of creating and implementing law. Congress passed ACA; the Supreme Court upheld it; it is the law of the land. Democracy in the U.S. means that the majority rules.
If you don't like this, you work to change the mind of the majority, and get legislators elected who represent you. If they gain majority power in Congress, you may get to change the law. Neither States nor political parties get to pick and choose which laws they will honor. That’s the way the United States work.
Unless people secede from the social contract, and secede from honoring the Constitutional set-up.
Replaying an old tape
This stubborn refusal to recognize the validity of a Federal law thrives particularly in the South, but don’t imagine the secession impulse has ever been limited to the South. In the early Republic, New England muttered threats to secede more than once in response to the Southern slavocracy’s demands. North and South struggled to see whose vision of the American future would prevail. Now GOP controlled states in other parts of the country, both west and north, play virtual secession to one degree or another. They bandy about the word itself with varying degrees of seriousness.
We’ve been here before; the tactics are familiar: states reject any Federal law that doesn’t suit them. State’s Rights trump Federal authority. So great was the split over slavery it took a war to decide which view would prevail. If you don’t like “secession,” call it “insurrection.” Whatever you call it, it ain’t politics as usual.
No shooting war is at hand. The tactic now is refusal to govern. This is not the usual "gridlock." It is a Constitutional crisis not unlike the one in 1860-61. Objections to the Affordable Care Act cloak the real issue: the authority of Federal institutions—and, alas, which man is President. Obama is the new Lincoln, a President one sector of the country refuses to tolerate.
But, one might say, these folks simply demand the right to uphold their conscience-driven convictions. That was, of course, exactly the point of the secessionist movement of 1860-61 that led to what the rebels called "The War of Northern Aggression."
In any case, the future of the Republic hangs on how this crisis is resolved.
Moral indignation seems to be everywhere as we consider wading (further) into the Syrian civil war.
The Left fulminates over Obama-Peace-Laureate proposing war; the Administration inveighs against chemical weapons; the Tea Party finds anything Obama says or does outrageous; and the pundits practice indignation over either (choose one): a) America’s growing isolationist mood and indifference to innocent suffering; b) America’s eagerness to be the world’s policeman
As a sure sign of feeling morally right, indignation allows us to build up energy for a fight with those we know are morally wrong, those other guys who don’t see things as clearly as we do. When we’re in fight mode we can enjoy the really great feeling of “moral clarity,” in which all the ambiguities resolve themselves into crystal-sharp black and white. The Secretary of State’s moral outrage index over the death of innocents knows no bounds as he leads the drummers ramping us up toward our “limited, targeted” bombing.
Ignoring Moral Complexity
To be honest, I don’t know what the wisest course might be for Superpower America to take, so this blog isn’t about any “right” way to go. Bombing or no bombing, tragic things will happen; either way promises “innocent deaths.” But little, if any, moral clarity seems apparent. Consider:
+ Chemical killing outrages, but “ordinary” killing only saddens, it would seem. Assad is a monster, chemical weapons abominable, but our use of Agent Orange, phosphorus bombs, and depleted uranium bombshells in war doesn’t qualify as morally out-of-bounds.
+ The Assad regime provides the main bulwark of protection not only for the Shi’ite Alawites, but for the Christians of Syria. But the democracy we imagine will be better for all will make both minorities lethally vulnerable to Sunni.
+ All the talk of innocent deaths and “red lines” against chemical weapons (deliberately?) leaves out vital geo-political factors that make the Syrian conflict a "proxy" war for a regional Sunni/ Shi'ite struggle. This pits Sunni Arabia and the Iraqi Sunnis against Shi'ite Iran, the Iraqi Shi'ites, and the ruling Shi'ia Alawites of Syria. The Saudis and the Iranians struggle over who will dominate the whole region, and deliver oil and natural gas to the world as well—a matter of no little concern to the U.S.
Toward a Humbler Wisdom
To cite all this is to spoil the excitement of moral indignation, of course. An equal opportunity employer, moral outrage brings pleasure to Left, Right, and Center. The danger, however, is what the Greeks called hubris, overweening pride and self-justifying zeal, whether if be the zeal of the pacifist who would keep us out of war and let the other guys go on killing each other, or of the hawk who would ride in on a white horse to save the innocent.
I’m certainly not any friend of the Assad regime. The prospect of chemical warfare really frightens. So why muddy the waters with these musings and misgivings?
Perhaps it's because in situations so complex and tragic as this, our only choices are between greater and lesser evils. To realize this clearly might foster humbler and wiser, albeit less morally exciting, decisions.
Almost half a century ago, one of my seminary professors, Dr. Norman Pittenger, opined that society would suffer much less from a loosening of pre-marital sexual mores than from a widespread breakdown in truth-telling. He was speaking at the dawning of the sexual revolution of the 60s, and we’re living in the full glare of the deception and disinformation revolution of the past decade at too many levels of our society.
Credit is tightening in China because few banks can trust the published financial data of other banks—exactly the same situation the U.S. faced in 2008. Their own published data is false, so why trust anybody else's? The wonder gadgets on Cable TV are surrounded by an avalanche of consumer complaints about false promises.
Fox News, of course, by claiming to be “fair and balanced,” has turned the phrase into a cynical joke.
“Oh, yeah?” I can hear my right-wing cousin say, “and just why should I trust your sources?” Dr. Pittenger’s point exactly: all too often today, you don’t know who or what to trust.
Truth in Politics?
Conservative politicians go about crying alarm about the deficit rising at a time when it is actually coming down, and that is but the beginning of misinformation. The Republican party is still fine-tuning its “image makeover for minorities” while it works, in state after state, to restrict access to voting for minorities.
It’s little wonder, therefore, that New Jersey governor Chris Christie told GOP leaders in Boston this week that he’s “going to do anything I need to win,” and that they’d better follow his example instead of letting the far right dominate the party. “We are political operation and need to win.”
While, from my viewpoint, “I’ll do anything, say anything, promise anything to win” is marginally more a GOP tactic than a Democrat one, Mr. Christie’s statement seems to describe all too well the nature of most political rhetoric today, left, right or center. “Spin” we’ve had with us always, but today’s politics are replete with misinformation, disinformation, and downright lies. Worse yet, we seem to expect it, and some pundits seem to rate performance skill and image manipulation as more important than truth.
Those "Negative" Commandments
I’ve heard people complain that the Ten Commands are “so negative; they are always telling you what not to do.” We may be living in one of those recurrent eras where we are destined to learn, with regret, why there are some things that, if not restrained by “thou shalt nots” will undermine society. The Torah says “Thou shalt not bear false witness” and the Buddha taught us that “Right Speech” means being simple and directly truthful to ourselves and to others.
My aforementioned cousin is fond of sending out internet blasts full of right-wing misinformation: about Obama, Social Security, and, most especially, Muslims. But he's also a devout Pentecostal Christian, so I've challenged him again and again about the "bear no false witness" commandment. He ignores the issue resolutely.
Such rules and moral maxims are like rails for the trolley. Violate them too much and the trolley comes off the track. And the truth-telling has to begin with each of us.
I was shocked to discover that the business
class upgrade one of my Israel pilgrims wanted was going to cost over $5000.
The upgrade cost more than the pilgrimage itself. But that was before I caught
up with how the airlines are embodying the yawning gap between the wealthy and
the rest of us.
Up in Business or First Class space abounds,
great meals (or as great as they can get on an airplane) are served, and
private compartments are available on some flights for more than
$5000.Back in Economy, what a New York
Times article recently called “the new steerage” the seats are crowded together
and it’s often “fee for service” all the way, even for a bottle of water.
That’s in addition to paying extra on top of your ticket price to check
a bag. Frontier Airlines even charges a fee for you to store your carry-on in
the overhead bins.
Of course, all this used to be included in the ticket
fee, but then you got treated as a person. Now it’s overtly nickel-and-dime, or rather five-ten-twenty-fifty or more
dollars all the way.Fee for service: the
monetizing and commodifying of everything, and the disappearance of even the
semblance of hospitality—unless, of course, you pay that $5000 extra for
Business Class. Up there you get treated like a guest—something that, once upon
a time, prevailed to some degree throughout the plane.
The "Sodom Syndrome"
The rabbinical legends that about the economic practices of Sodom and
Gomorrah continue to illuminate, for me, the moral quality of societies in which such
rapacious and feral marketplace customs replace the more humane customs of
mutuality that treat people as souls rather than mere economic integers: the “Sodom
syndrome.” I mentioned an ancient rabbinical joke too complex to relate in a
recent blog about the sin cities, and got requests to relate it. This
fee-for-service howl is a perfect venue, so here it is. The joke is a
Eliezar, Abraham's servant, goes to
visit Lot's family in Sodom. A bystander hits Eliezar on the forehead with a
rock till it bleeds because he gave alms to a beggar, contrary to the city's economic code. The assailant
then demands that Eliezar pay him for the "service of (medical) bloodletting."
Eliezar refuses, saying he was the victim. The Sodomite hauls him into
court to make him pay, and the judge declares the assailant deserves payment
for the medical service. Eliezar pulls a rock out of his robe, hits the judge
on the forehead, causing blood to flow, then says, "Now you owe me a fee
for my medical service. Use what you would have paid me to compensate my
In the ancient near East, commerce was often
surrounded by hospitality. The shopkeeper wanted to drive a hard bargain, as
did the customer, but it took place after sipping tea and having pleasant
conversation, and there was a fairly set style of courteous conversation, even
as buyer and seller tried to gain the advantage. All of this had, apparently,
disappeared in Sodom and Gomorrah, and the rabbis use their tales and jokes to
condemn such a soul-less, inhumane marketplace. When profit is God, soul
And steerage passengers pay for the privilege of carrying luggage.
Fast-food workers and others in minimum wage employment are staging one-day walk-outs demanding $15 an hour as a “living wage.” Some are seeking unionization.
Listening to a radio news report about an walk-out at Alaska’s major airport by baggage handlers, I heard an astonishingly hard-hearted (and pea-brained) comment by a management spokesperson. “I have nothing against unions,” she said, “but I do object to free handouts, and that’s what $15 an hour would be. These people have got to deserve that much money. They should go to school, upgrade their skills, so that they’re worth $15 an hour.”
As Barbara Ehrenreich showed ten years ago in her Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, it’s virtually impossible to maintain an apartment, let alone buy a house on a minimum wage salary. Exactly how, I wondered, are people working minimum wage jobs going to have enough money to get the education to increase their skills when they can hardly afford housing? The days of street-sweeper to senior partner are long gone in America.
The management lady voices the attitude of too many people who have “made it” in America: “I’ve got mine; what’s wrong with you that you don’t have yours?” I suspect that most people who feel that $15 per hour is a “handout” for fast-food workers have never had to work minimum wage jobs since their high-school spending-money days. Free handouts? “Fat lot she knows,” I muttered to myself.
The Social Sins of Sodom
Doing research for last Sunday’s Old Testament lesson on Sodom and Gomorrah I ran across some biblical and rabbinical teachings about the two infamous cities that resonate all too chillingly with the "no handout" privileged, who live so high up on the world mountain they can’t see the valley clearly at all.
Sodom was said to have many "detestable" sins, gang-rape of both men and women among them. It was the symbolic epitome of the corrupt city, but far and away the worse sin, for the rabbis, was just this haughty “I don’t believe in handouts” attitude toward the poor. The rabbis say that Sodom’s motto was “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” Forget about the common good. Their interpretation is based on Ezekiel, who describes Sodom’s “arrogance, gluttonous luxury, idleness, neglect of poor and needy” (Ezek. 16:49). The rabbis say Sodom actually punished people who helped the poor, much as many American cities are passing laws against feeding the homeless, including “health” regulations that effectively shut down church soup kitchens.
The rabbis tell a tale about one of Lot’s daughters (whose unfortunate sisters were later gang-raped by ruffians desiring to brutalize the three mysterious male wayfarers in the Genesis tale) being put to death for giving money to a beggar. No handouts, no way! They also tell a joke, too complicated to relate here, about how everything had become fee-for-service in this wealthy city built on the labor of low-income people and home to the festering poor.
I can’t be absolutely sure what the ancient rabbis would say about some of the current political trends in the U.S., but I’ve got a pretty good idea.
All across the country, the crowds are gathering: in Times Square, at statehouses, in public plazas. The causes are multiple. My question is this: could they be the beginning of a grass-roots “push-back” that matures into a new civil rights movement? God knows, we need it.
Hundreds, sometimes thousands, congregate to bear witness to the unequal treatment of blacks and whites in our courts, so sharply illustrated by the trial of Trayvon Martin’s killer. The familiar dilemma of “driving while black” for African-American males now joins the even more unsafe adventure of “walking while black.” Of what comfort are those (so recently eroded) voting rights if you can’t even let your teenager go down to the convenience store for a snack in his own upscale neighborhood?
On successive“Moral Mondays,” crowds have stood outside the North Carolina statehouse protesting the draconian cuts to unemployment insurance and other right-wing moves. Hundreds have been arrested. We’ve seen similar statehouse rallies in Wisconsin and Texas as well over similar issues.
A widespread vulnerability
The working poor, more and more of the middle-class, women, blacks and latinos—we're all now directly in the cross-hairs of the not-unrelated forces of international big money and narrow-minded politics. We can feel it in the harsh bite of the right-wing desire to “starve the beast” that provides a social safety-net against vagaries of the Almighty Market. We experience it in the vicious edge of a deeply embedded racism that flares forth afresh on the internet, in political speech and action. We feel it the dawning fear that the new economic “normal” presages an expanding, inter-racial underclass.
The protests are diverse: women’s rights, voting rights for people of color and college students, truly equal rights for blacks in the court system. What they all reflect, however, is that many of the major social reform achievements of 20th century progressivism are now threatened with roll-back.
Most Americans are actually unaware of the manifold ways these achievements have made middle class prosperity a reality, but they will, as funding continues to be cut and laws undone. Is it possible that these different streams of protest could coalesce into some sort of mass movement?
Relying on more than the courts
Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine has suggested that the reason the gay rights movement has been successful is that it was, in fact, a mass movement. Not so much via large rallies (outside of Gay Pride parades), but by millions of people “coming out.” It succeeded through the influence of this mass action as well as the court system, and the two are as inseparable as in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By contrast, he says, the civil rights movement of the 60s shifted from the streets to the courts after the Jim Crow laws were abolished. The time has come for renewed mass action.
This time we really are all in this together. The desire to limit access to voting hits many groups; the movements to limit women’s health choices is color-blind; the passion of conservatives to undermine the social safety net is no respecter of race, gender, or sexual orientation.
Is a renewed, interracial civil rights/economic opportunities movement in the making? If so, what are the next steps?
Are you a liberal still scratching your head in bafflement and disbelief about the latest round of GOP obstructionism in the House of Representatives, or in state legislatures?
Still wondering why they don’t “want the government to work”?
Time to wake up to the sober realization that a great many GOP politicians, especially neo-con and Tea Party folks, really don’t want the government to work, at least not in any of the ways we got used to in the 20th century. Furthermore, they really don’t care who gets hurt, because they are hell-bent-for-leather to “make things right again.” Having ground Congress to a halt, they're now aiming to enact their agenda in states all over the country.
Back to 1890—or is it 1800?
So, what’s “right”? Consider the conversation I had a couple of years back with a colleague, an intelligent, very wealthy uber-conservative Republican. The proper role of the federal government, he insisted, was 1) national defense, 2) maintaining civil order when a state might not be able to do so. Anything more, including Federal investment in infrastructure, was “financially unsustainable” and would eventually “ruin the country.” No social services of any kind, no way, no how. That’s up to families. Or, if necessary, private charity. Period.
In other words, the U.S. has gone astray ever since the days when Andrew Jackson railroaded through a Federally-funded and organized effort to build a highway to the “Northwest” (aka Ohio, Indiana and Illinois) for the settlers to move into new territory. Much of the going-astray due to allowing non-property owners to vote, making the government prey the passions of those who don't have a "real stake" in the society.
I’m not suggesting that all Republicans are this draconian; I’ve got other Republican friends who lament that “the party has deserted me.” But similar visions drive the libertarian, Tea Party, and neo-con Republican ideologies, with various additions such as maintaining conservative Christian morality. The conservative wing of the GOP has been out to “starve the beast” of government since the beginning of the Reagan era—and they are actually making good progress. Hearts in a cage of gold
Don’t be baffled by what seems hard-heartedness about the deprivation caused by things like the “sequestration.” It’s brought to you by the same folks who feel that the ups and downs of an unregulated marketplace are “necessary to cleanse the system.” “You have to break eggs to make an omelette.” Sink or swim. I did it, so anybody can.
You don’t have to make this stuff up. This is their rhetoric, as in Romney’s infamously leaked comment about half of the American public—blacks, whites, latinos, the poor and the middle class— being moochers. It’s their talk and their increasingly successful walk.
When will push-back come?
Push back must come from those whose future is being undermined, and needs to be multi-racial and multi-class. It will involve people in the streets and the statehouses, like the thousands in front of the North Carolina legislature on “justice Mondays,” and the 700 who have been arrested so far. All us “moochers,” who actually think Social Security, Medicare, Head Start, affordable housing and so on are good ideas are faced with determined people dedicated to a re-creating a "sink or swim" world: every man, woman and child for himself.
To modify a famous saying of Ben Franklin: “We’re in this together; we either hang together, or they’ll hang us out to dry separately.”
A week has just passed which was both jubilant and sad for civil rights in America.
I am happy about federal marriage rights for gays and lesbians; sad about undermining voting rights for minorities —and very aware of how much work there is ahead on both issues. I fear there is a deep and troubling connection between these two contradictory Court decisions, and it has more to do with economics and the Establishment than it has much to do with sexual orientation.
A Victory for the System?
It takes nothing away from the stunning victory for marriage equality to note, as Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine does, that “though the marriage equality movement challenges traditional social norms in U.S. society, the movement is at root a bid for inclusion in the current system rather than an attempt to shake up the system itself.” Rights for LGBT people have been driven, predominantly, by people with connections within the system—and actually serves to enhance the system. Marriage Equality involves significant—and deserved—financial justice as well as promising greater social inclusion.
While it affects people of all colors and classes, the cultural shift that leads to the Court’s decision was created by millions of people “coming out” at levels of society not so far removed from the corridors of power: stockbrokers, teachers, clergy, media personalities, schoolteachers, executives, board members, to say nothing of your uncle Sid or cousin Sally. Inclusivity is good business in the international marketplace, and the LGBT population includes a large pool of skilled people and an important voting bloc.
But what about those about to be frustrated at the polls—especially poor people of color who are increasingly part of this (partially) prosperous nation’s economic underbelly? Lerner goes on: “Any attempt to fight for substantive racial equity in our society, on the other hand, would necessarily involve a deeply threatening overhaul of our current economic system.”*
States Rights All Over Again
Furthermore, both decisions lay heavy emphasis on States Rights, the darling of the conservative wing of Court. In stark contrast to the mid-20th century battle to secure human rights on a national leve, the struggle for further marriage equality will be fought state by state, probably for a generation to come. The battle for voting rights, as well, the Court has decreed, will be a state-by-state battle, against even greater odds, while the GOP holds so many state legislatures securely, and has freely acknowledged that higher minority turnout hurts their chances of winning.
The preacher at last Sunday's Pride Evensong in New York City noted this glaring contrast, and called on the congregation to dig in for the long haul for the rights of all Americans. It’s time for progressives to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn—and ponder what actions will be needed to provide the same kind of momentum for Black and Latino voting rights as was created for Marriage Equality.
In the state-by-state slug-fest before us, will the cause of Blacks and Latinos be as successful as Marriage Equality promises, eventually, to be? And what will it take to make it so?
Spoiler Alert: Man of Steel spoilers abound below. Written for those who have seen the film, are interested in the odd articles minimizing Lois Lane’s role, or don't mind knowing the plot in advance.
In much of the buzz about the (rather blatant) links between Kal-El/ Clark Kent and Jesus in Man of Steel, the latest entry in the ongoing, and ever-morphing Superman saga, I have yet to see any really positive analysis of the crucial role played by Lois Lane in the film. This is a mysterious omission, since Lois is absolutely pivotal to saving the world from the fanatical General Zod's plan to "terra-form" earth into a new Krypton.
Lois, as well as Clark, has changed since her comic book beginnings. Once an intrepid 1930s feminist reporter dazzlingly clueless about Clark's secret identity, she had to be rescued again and again from the dangerous situations into which her nosing around got her. Since then, she's been married to Clark/Kal-El, pregnant with their baby, or bereft of her idol and off in another marriage, depending on the decade.
Two Seems Better Than One
In Man of Steel she works her way into a newly exalted place. Appearing first in her "take no prisoners" journalist mode, she becomes intrigued with the mystery of the quiet young man who carried her bags to the Arctic base where the government is investigating an alien spacecraft buried in the ice. Tracking down Clark's incognito wanderings as a lowly laborer in many settings, she finally hits pay dirt in Smallville, where she hears of his early "miracles" in saving people. After a face-to-face with this "hidden Messiah," she decides to suppress the story, making her a co-conspirator with his need to remain unrevealed.
In the climactic last half of the film, when Kal-El can no longer hide, she bravely agrees to go with him into the alien spacecraft, turning her investigative skills to discovering how to defeat the Kryptonians. Stumbling into a conversation with Jor-El, Superman's father, she finds the secret of defeating the alien invasion. While Kal-El does the (heavily overdone) muscle work of battling the invading Kryptonians, Lois clues the Armed Forces into the secret, and risks her life in the attack which sends the enemy back into the Phantom Zone. Superman's muscle alone would never have saved earth. It was Lois's smarts that saved the day.
His Brawn and Her Brain?
In the light of this, I've been dismayed to read more than one complaint that "men rule the day" in Man of Steel and "women exist only to be rescued." Sure, she gets saved in this film, too. But did these commentators miss the obvious plot-line in which Lois uses her skills to help save the world?
The film ends with Clark, wearing his innocuous “disguise” glasses, appearing to work under Lois' supervision at the Daily Planet. They share secret, knowing smiles and glances. Not only are they already romantically involved, but proven partners as well. His brawn and her brain? Whatever the case, this “dynamic duo” dimension changes the elements in the story considerably.
An Update to the Hero Myth Itself?
And if we're doing Jesus parallels, then Lois has (apart from the romantic dimension) assumed the elevated role many Roman Catholics see in Mary—Co-Redemptrix of the world (!) I'm actually not partial to the Kal-El/Jesus connection myself. I'd rather see Clark/ Kal-El/ Superman as one variation of the universal Hero myth reflected in the stories of Moses, King Arthur, and Harry Potter, among others.
But "Man of Steel" makes it clear that, unlike so many ancient stories (and the original Superman myth) the male Hero does much better with a female Hero as his partner.
The poignant ache of college reunions wants to speak itself into words, but has trouble finding them.
Why did I find it so touching that my freshman roommate’s girlfriend, now his wife of many years, blurted out that she “secretly loved me” because I was “so nice”? Her husband, who was a preppy fresh out private school confinement, gave every semblance of a wild man in our first-year suite (including bouncing a lacrosse ball against the bedroom wall at midnight while I was trying to sleep). But he's been nothing but warm, welcoming, apologetic, and friendly at the two reunions I’ve seen him.
Why do such things mean so much, all these years later, when we have had hardly anything to do with each other in the years between these two sightings?
This 50th reunion was almost as good as the 25th, which was the first I attended — good because, like the 25th, it had so little evidence of one-upping, status strutting, and other ego-flashing. Twenty-five years ago we were all deep in mid-life, and now we were men (not co-ed in our day) in our early 70s with the bulk of our careers behind us, facing into the common challenges of living our humanity for the last phase of our lives. Mostly in good health, we are still aware of our vulnerability and, more importantly the preciousness of life. So seeing once-close friends again, some perhaps for the last time, was good.
But what’s the ache, no the yearning, that, at least for me, makes otherwise trivial conversations, and late evening conversations about weighty subjects so very important?
As I left my lengthy talk with Rick about the Civil War, and war itself, and picked up a final club soda from the young Yalie staffing the bar, I did a very older man thing. As we chatted pleasantly about his own college career, I said to him, “I keep wanting to say to all of you, ‘Where we are now, you will be eventually.’ I remember roaming this campus after graduation and seeing the older grads back for reunion, including the 50-year-out men, and finding it so incredible that I would eventually be one of them. And here I am now, one of them.
“I’ve been trying to put my finger on what’s so important about these meetings and conversations with people I only see at reunion. Seeing you standing here makes me realize that we’re all, to one degree or another, trying to catch some of the fire that burned in us when we were young and being so deeply shaped by what we were learning, and more deeply by each other as we discussed, debated, argued and laughed our way through these four years. College was the very crux of our young adult formation; these years set us on our paths. We meant so much to each other then, and we so very much want to capture the exciting, protean, possibility-filled elan of that time. However glad we may be to be past our youth, we ache for the fire of it, which we see in all of you staffing the Reunion. I hope you cherish this time, even though the Yale song isn’t really true: these are not ‘the brightest, gladdest years of life.’ But they can point you toward them.”
I’m glad I went, just this one last time. Or maybe the last time it isn’t.....
When you descended into death,
O Life Immortal,
you made Hades as nothing
with the radiance of your divinity.
Feeling your way deeper and deeper
through every dark realm
you came to the bottomless pit of fear
and closed it round with the embrace
of your compassionate gaze,
comprehending it within the wider assurance
that everything can fall, finally,
only toward your Life.
Overwhelmed by the tidal waves of your world
we yearn for your Rescue,
pining for some Presence
other than that still small Pulse of life
within us already.
Compassionately enduring your own world,
risen to your full statue in the tempest of its challenges,
you lay bare for all to see
how they lurk at the heart of every moment,
those seeds of goodness
hidden in the hardest, darkest shells,
waiting to be unlocked and rise again.
I wrote these two prayers for Good Friday and Holy Saturday, which trace Christ’s confrontation with the powers of evil and darkness. They seek to express the strange process of redeeming the Dark by confrontation, compassion, non-resistance and resilient refusal to succumb.
Whose shoulders are big enough to bear the sins of the world?
There are, of course, some perverse ways in which sins get borne. We humans are very prone to scapegoat others, to offload our fears and apprehensions on this person or that group, rather than search out the complex reasons why things go wrong.
But scapegoating is a sign of oursinfulness, not a sign of how Jesus’ Cross is the culmination of his redemptive life, Western Christianity’s heavy use of the scapegoat motif on Good Friday notwithstanding. A better clue to the meaning of “bearing the sins of the world” can be found in a Hebrew word often translated “forgiveness." The word naga’ has a number of meanings, one of which is “to bear" and it is sometimes applied to atonement rituals in the Hebrew Bible. Thus, when God forgives our sins, God is, among other things, “bearing the sin” rather than punishing us or avenging it.
We ought to understand this because we do it ourselves. If we retaliate for every slight, strike back for every offense, take vengeance for every injury, our world spirals into emotional violence, perhaps worse. But we often “bear with” others we care for, sometimes actually “bear the sin” done to us and forgive it. Of course, there's a time and place for everything, and the Master also bids us confront offenders directly when necessary. Finding the right balance between forbearance, self-protection, and calling others to accountability is one secret of emotional maturity.
So, Jesus “bearing the sins of the world” means, among other things, that he embodies, as God's living Message in the flesh, God's big shoulders: God's own merciful willingness to "bear" injury from us as we violate the fabric of goodness in ourselves, nature, and other people. We do this extravagantly, dangerously, often heedlessly. We are inextricably part of the sin of the world no matter how noble and holy our personal lives are; not to blame for all of it, but also not exempt from contributing to it.
Peter Abelard had this right: the Cross shows how deeply God will enter into life to reach us. The crucified Son is not the victim of a God furious at sin, but rather the very embodiment in human flesh of God’s own sin-bearing, forgiving love, relentlessly refusing to turn against us, even as we pierce his hands and side. That is because God sees us still, and always, with a heart that is ferocious in its desire to wake us up out of the fears and narcissism that are the drivers of our misdeeds; wake us up to accountability, and turn us toward the golden seeds of God-likeness planted deep in us.
“Hate the sin but love the sinner” is not a popular phrase among the fellow-believers I know, but it’s not entirely amiss for how God sees us. Perhaps “grieve the sin and love the sinner” or even “bear with the sin because they are more than sinners.”
Whatever way it's said, it’s good news for yet another Good Friday.
When elephants are being slaughtered to the point of extinction in Africa, it can seem a bit narcissistic to contemplate one’s own seemingly less minor sins. But to neglect such personal self-examination would be to misunderstand the very nature of sin.
For the same greed which leads criminal gangs of poachers, just last Thursday, to murder 89 elephants in Chad, including 33 pregnant females, dwells in my own heart.
It manifests in ways other than hacking off elephant tusks to fuel the lucrative Asian ivory trade, but the greed arises from roots in me that are the same in those poachers. The wealthy Chinese who imbibe some of this ivory, in powder form, as an aphrodisiac are enhancing the same lusts that burn in me when I seek some stimulant in fantasy or visual form to artificially hype up my own sexual desires. My sins may not rise to the same grandiose and destructive heights as theirs, but we are bound together in the same powerful web of sin.
It is astonishing that “sin” is such an unpopular word, granted that there is so much of it spoiling human lives and destroying the world — for “sin” is the word for whatever spoils the goodness of life, and destroys the fabric of health in the body, relationships, societies and the world. Write it large in red, or black, or shocking pink across every newspaper front page every day of the week.
I do not mean, in saying this, to fall into the trap of believing human nature is totally corrupt, but anyone who does not recognize that we all have in us the seeds of corruption hasn’t noticed much about either life or themselves. The rabbis have it right: made in the image of God, we are capable of both good and evil. All of us. Every day. But because the world is so dotted with spectacular sinners—sex traffickers, hate-mongers, political liars, elephant murderers, climate change deniers, child abusers—I can easily make light of my own less newsworthy bursts of greed, arrogance, unwarranted anger, self-serving lies, and minor resentments against others.
In Holy Week, Christians sing hymns that often assert that we crucify Christ: I it was denied thee, (not just Peter), I crucified thee (not just those high priests, those Romans, or the screaming mob). We do this because it is, quite simply, true. Christ is the symbol and embodiment of God’s own goodness in human nature and the world. The ways we allow our “unruly wills and sinful affections” to compromise, undermine, and destroy the fabric of the world all contribute to crucifying that goodness.
The place to start in pondering our sins is not with our own small selves, but the world God loves—and then to smell out where we are contributing to its malaise, however unwittingly. And then try hard to figure out how we can lessen the sinfulness of our footprint.
I am a Christian in New Jersey with deep roots in and respect for the "generous orthodoxy" tradition of spiritual wisdom and for the insights of other spiritual pathways. Increasingly concerned about what this world-wide wisdom, particulary the Abrahamic prophetic message, should be saying about current affairs, both religious and secular, I finally decided to do this blog. Beside this, I love science fiction/fantasy, great mystery novels, world history, political history, poetry, music of most any kind, tennis, and art.
All these blogs are copyright by Robert C. Morris, all rights reserved.