What Would Jesus Say to the Man in the White House?

As Jesus reminded us way back when, it’s as difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle as it is for a rich man to get to heaven.  What’s the answer for a rich man who wants to enter those pearly gates? Help the poor.   Jesus taught us that those who are well off should be giving to those who are not.   It’s called charity, alms, or–to give it a nice glossy feel by putting it in French–noblesse oblige: the privileged have a duty to help those below them.  Jesus didn’t speak French ( He could have, of course, even though it wasn’t invented yet), but noblesse oblige is what he meant.  How far this duty goes and how much to give away is up for discussion, but whatever the answer, it’s not just about money.   Noblesse oblige  also contains the idea that the privileged have a moral duty to set an example of good behavior for the rest of us.

Jesus would need a good month, maybe even a year, to educate the guy in the White House.  He’d have to talk about the needs of migrants at the border, how the poor need health care,  about giving away more of his wealth and how to work on keeping his temper…but what would He say about the treatment of women?

Unfortunately, in our blighted century we have an equally ancient trend that has eclipsed noblesse oblige—the droit de seigneur or ius primae noctus– that charming custom of the Middle Ages that allowed the lord of the manor to bed a village maid on her wedding night while her groom paced in agony outside.  Charlton Heston gave a memorable demonstration of this (the bedding, not the pacing) in a film of the 1960s, The Warlord.  He had come a long way from his Moses and Ben-Hur.

These days le droit has morphed into open season on women for the rich and famous.  Our modern lords of the manor are guys like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and of course the current occupant of the Oval Office, men who seem to think that their wealth, celebrity status and the power that goes with that allows them a free hand to  force their attentions and worse on any woman who strikes their fancy.  Far from setting a good example their attacks have set a new low standard, and a certain type of man is, no doubt, acting out his own predatory fantasies about women by saying  to himself, “if the President has done it, why not me?”

Women are fighting back in all kinds of ways, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could get back to a place where men in the news, especially those we elect to high office, treat women well?  Where they approach them with a courtly dignity?   I understand why Melania might still be hanging on–maybe she believes her son’s welfare is on the line. But  I’m completely baffled by the Vice-President, an Evangelical who agreed to serve with someone so obviously reprehensible in this regard.   Why, would you do that, Mike? What are you telling your kids?

Parents, especially Christian parents, get busy and make sure your children know that the man in the White House is an example of what NOT to do.  Then maybe if enough of you go to the polls and make your disgust known, we can live in a country where the news is not dominated by porn stars, adultery, hush money, groping, rape and lies, lies, lies.

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How are Sex and the Arts Alike? James Joyce’s Answer

In Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man there is an incredible passage that comes from nowhere.   His “young man” of the title,  Stephen Dedelus, wakes up in the morning with “an enchantment of the heart” after a night in which “he had known the ecstasy of seraphic life.”

He felt words forming in his waking mind, a poem demanding to be born.

“A spirit filled him, pure as the purest water, sweet as dew, moving as music.”

He has transcended to another world, a sublime world, so sweet, so alive with possibilities, so rife with thoughts and images he can hardly bear it.  Drawing on the language of the New Testament Joyce writes:

“In the virgin womb of the imagination the word was made flesh.  Gabriel the seraph had come to the virgin’s chamber.”

Stephen’s experience as he slept brought him “the word” –the rhythms and rhymes of a poem that must be written.  This creative force that brings forth new works of art, music, poetry is the same sacred force that creates new life in the womb of humankind.  The physical union of male and female, and the embrace of the artist and his muse are One.  The Word, the Logos… It’s the story of the creation of the universe, the creation of the Christ child, and the creation of a song.  We are in the presence of the Spirit. It’s glorious.

 

A Wrathful Man Stirreth up Strife: Running Amok in the USA

When those intrepid 15th century Portuguese sailed round the Cape of Good Hope and headed across the Indian Ocean to the Spice Islands they stumbled across a bizarre phenomenon among the Malay people.   Every so often a man who up to then had been perfectly normal would undergo a change of mood.  He would become withdrawn, then begin to brood. Finally he would pick up a knife or an axe, run into a crowd and proceed to hack and stab total strangers or animals, maiming and killing them indiscriminately until finally committing suicide or being killed by the crowd.   The Malays and Indonesians called this meng-amuk ‘making a desperate charge’ and the person doing the killing was an amuko.    Westerners called it ‘running amok.’

If this sounds familiar, it should.   Suicide bombers in the Middle East are a variant of this sort of madman, delusional fanatics who believe the Creator of the Universe smiles to see them reduce a crowded marketplace to a bloody tangle of body parts.   In the United States the news is full of people running amok, mentally ill people who snap and explode with rage, taking the lives of the innocent in a few murderous seconds.  There are some differences from the old Spice Islanders, however.   The big one is that our amukos have their fingers on a trigger instead of a hilt so the numbers of the victims can be very large. Also, the attacks are often planned and their targets known to the attackers. It might be bosses who they feel slighted them, or members of groups they dislike, but the result is the same with innocent strangers dead or wounded.  There is one other important similarity: they are always men. Psychologists have speculated that running  amok may be a way for unsuccessful males to prove that they are, after all, real men, because what do real men do?  They wield weapons and are able to kill.

It is said that the Malay people accepted running amok as part of their culture, and did not hold it against the amuko.  It is our tragedy that running amok has become a regular part of our culture too, and while we do not forgive the assailant, over the years shock has yielded to a helpless sigh and a shake of our heads as we wonder how we ever got to this place.

What would it take to change that?  As a prelude to an answer, let me suggest as others have that the tone at the top has an enormous influence, and currently we have some very angry men in leadership positions.  You can’t help thinking of the old verse of Solomon: A wrathful man stirreth up strife, but he that is slow to anger appeaseth strife (Proverbs 15:18) .  Has there ever been a time in recent memory where so much strife has been so vigorously stirred up and so little attempt at appeasing it?

So what do we  do to make running amok a thing of the past? There’s plenty.

1) Congress: make it much more difficult for people with mental problems to get a gun

2) Health professionals / insurance companies: improve the care of people with mental problems

3) Media : reduce the frenzy around mass murders and he who stirreth up strife

4) All of us:  foster a healthier Spirit—yes, with a  capital S.  If the zeitgeist is currently one of taunts and trolls, anger and angst, invective and paranoia lets work to undo that.    Get off of social media, that slough of conspiracy theories, that echo chamber or hostility!   Be slow to anger and stop stirring it up.  And as far as Solomon’s “appeasement”  goes, it has been an unpopular word since 1939, but in the sense of “reconciliation” it’s one of the most important aspects of communal life, an essential part of the Sacrament of Forgiveness.  Let’s call it “getting along with others” and then it becomes something everyone can accept and work toward.  So let’s get started.

 

The Sacrament of the Arts: Theatre at its Best

If ever there were a perfect illustration of the Sacrament of the Arts it would be  found up in White River Junction, Vermont where Northern Stage’s recent production of the play Oslo blew the audience away.   That is, blew them away by gathering them in.  Let me explain.

This award-winning play by J.T. Rogers tells the story of two Norwegian diplomats who, on their own, decided to try to make peace in the Middle East.    It was the 1990s — Israel and the PLO were at war, civilian deaths were mounting and the official government peace talks were dead in the water.  Secret, back-channel talks began in Oslo, and against all odds, after nearly insurmountable difficulties, the Norwegians did it:  by the end of the play the leaders of Israel and the PLO had signed the Oslo Peace Accords.  How did they do it? Through a humanist approach.  Up to this time, some of the Palestinians had never even met an Israeli. The Norwegians insisted that there be time each day to eat together, relax together, to call each other by their first names—in short, to get to know each other as real people.    They met at the human level and the business of negotiation was conducted in a separate room.  Once the human connections had been forged, things began to change in their deliberations. There was more trust, more willingness to compromise, more empathy.   The final result was a victory for Humanism

And then the Dark Side had its innings.  Rabin, the leader of Israel was accused by conservatives of selling out.  The Bible, they said, gave all the land to the Jews. Period.  Rabin was assassinated.  Everything fell apart.  So here we are, still in a never-ending cycle of death that feeds all the war and unrest in that region: Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan—so much hate directed at Israel and the United States, and when I ask my students why they hate us, they have no clue or come up with something as off-the-mark as George Bush’s comment that they resent our freedom.

Let’s come back to the play.  The great thing about theatre is that by its very nature it reminds us of our humanity. All these people come together—the cast, the writer, the tech crew, the audience—and they bond for a couple of hours. The audience is drawn into the lives and passions of the characters on stage. They see the world through their eyes, they share their joys, they sympathize, they suffer with them in their defeats.  It wouldn’t be the same if they were alone in a room streaming a film on Netflix, or even if they were in a crowded movie theatre, though that can come close.  No, it’s the fact that the spectator is there, shoulder to shoulder with others, taking in the drama together and being transformed by it.

At the end of Oslo, after it all goes to hell, the Norwegian protagonist turns  directly to the audience and says “My friends, if we have come this far, through blood, through fear—hatred—how much further  can we yet go? There on the horizon, The Possibility. Do you see it? Do you?”  and each night of the run someone answered “Yes.”  It gives you chills.

One final note:  this kind of theatre experience doesn’t happen by accident.   It takes a certain kind of person at the top to create the atmosphere that can bring out the best in everyone. Creativity is strangled under dictators and thrives in a climate of warmth and support.  Northern Stage is blessed to have Carol Dunne as Artistic Director, Eric Bunge as Managing Director, and for Oslo, Peter Hackett as director.   It’s a happy place to work.

What Would Be the Best Outcome from the Kavanaugh Hearings?

 

The dramatic, depressing stories from 36 years ago that were beamed around the world last week are now stuck in our minds.   Our country has been brought together to witness some gripping political theatre and some horrific personal tragedies.  Anyone with an ounce of compassion must feel the pain of Christine Blasey Ford, and, yes, the pain of Brett Kavanaugh too.  The images conjured up by the hearings will stay with us for a long time: of drunken teenagers, partying in parent-less homes; of a frightened girl attacked and scarred for life; of smug, sophomoric comments in high-school yearbooks; of jocks smirking over supposed sexual conquests and lionizing inebriation. Yes, the hearings brought us together to watch, glued to our seats, only to shatter into warring camps to the drumbeat of fatuous political rhetoric. Pathetic. Disturbing.

I can just imagine the ayatollahs and imams in the Middle East shaking their heads knowingly : “This is why we insist women must wear the veil.  It is the only way to protect them from the lusts of men, and particularly young foolish men, barely out of boyhood.  This is why we forbid alcohol.  Come here, my daughter, and cover yourself from head to toe so that you will not be a temptation for young men to sin.”

But is there no other answer than this? If only we could use this important moment to get at something even greater than a Supreme Court seat: the treatment of women.  The Catholics call marriage a Sacrament, but the act of sexual union itself is what is sacred, or should be, an intimate, beautiful manifestation of love and commitment, not a pastime, not a game.   To think of sex as an appetite to be indulged puts us at the level of the beasts.  Can’t we tune in to our higher selves without entombing women in shapeless cocoons?

Joseph Campbell warned us long ago, that we are society without a rite of passage for young men, and if none exists, they will create their own.  Drunken binges and scoring with girls have become the ritual for too many, especially when boys and young men come together in groups.  We should do all in our power to create a new respect for the Sacrament of Sexual Union.

Here are some suggestions:

Every father and mother should now go to their young boys and say, “Whatever you do in life, always treat women with respect.” Repeat this frequently throughout their adolescence.

Every coach of every team in high school and college should gather their players and insist (as many already do): “You guys are here to be examples to the wider community, so if I hear about any drunken binges, or parties with strippers or hookers, you’re off the team.”

Every president of every college and university should let fraternities and sororities know that the days of worshipping the keg are over. No more Animal House—it’s not funny anymore.

Every captain in the armed forces should meet with their troops and crews: “I know you guys need to relax and have fun, but do it within reason, and men, always treat women as your equals, not as objects, not as prey.”

In the meantime, women, watch out, and fight back.

The Thirty-Years War and the War in Afghanistan

For those of you who slept through World History in high school, listen up now: there was no war more brutal and dehumanizing than the 30-Years War that ravaged Central Europe in the early 17thcentury. The number of deaths, the displaced persons, the burned villages, the mayhem, chaos, cruelty–foreign armies pillaging and raping their way across the countryside—the stories surpass the horrors of any modern war.

Why did they fight?  Religion. The Emperor of Austria, raised by Jesuits, couldn’t bear the idea that so many of his subjects had rejected the Catholic Church and become Protestant. He gathered his armies and sent them out to bring the True Religion back, even though it meant destroying much of his empire. The Protestants, knowing that theirs was the True Religion, fought back furiously and both sides were equally un-Christian—it would be more accurate to say inhuman.

Is there anyone today, from the smallest child to the Pope himself, who looks back on that time and thinks that particular war was justified?   Of course not.  We shake our heads in disbelief and ask ourselves how could anyone professing to be a follower of Jesus Christ turn “love thy enemies” into “Onward Christian soldiers”?   The blindness of the participants is shocking to our modern sensibilities.

And yet that’s exactly what is happening once again in Afghanistan and in the Middle East.  Soldiers have been killing each other for decades, civilians have been slaughtered and raped, entire towns destroyed, and all for what?  So that Islam, the “true religion”, may reign supreme, with the Taliban or ISIS or Al Qaeda calling the shots on what the practices of that religion are.   To be honest, the Western World could most likely live with whatever practices these guys came up with if they would just stay in their homelands.  Let them treat their women however they want, we’d say, and let them pray in their mosques, if it were not for the threat those groups pose to our security.   They are determined to launch terror attacks on us, largely because of the United States’ support for Israel vs. the Palestinians, and even if they promised in a peace conference that they would leave us alone, who would believe them?  The road out of this morass is not yet clear.

But if anything is written in the stars, it is that one day our descendants will look back on this era and once again shake their heads in disbelief at how blind people were: “Our forefathers were sure they had found the true religion and must convince everyone of that at gunpoint.  Madness!  We now know there is no true religion other than that based on the sanctity of our humanity and all of its sacraments.”

 

George Elliot on the Sacraments: What A Way with Words!

I just came across this passage in George Elliot’s first novel Adam Bede written in the year 1859.   In case you’ve forgotten, George Elliot was a pen name for Mary Anne Evans (the pseudonym was to insure that people would take her novels seriously).

Elliott has just described carpenter Seth Bede’s proposal of marriage to Dinah, the pretty young Methodist preacher of the story, but he’s out of luck.  Dinah gently tells Seth her religious duties have to come first—he’s a good man, but she will never marry. Seth is heartbroken, and Elliot, in a beautiful ode to love, lets her sympathy for the poor young man’s unrequited adoration tumble out onto the page, writing that this sort of profound, pure love of a man for a woman is “hardly distinguishable from religious feeling.”   In fact, she writes, all of our deepest feelings of love share this religious quality,

“…whether of woman or child, or art of music.  Our caresses, our tender words, our still rapture under the influence of autumn sunsets, or pillared vistas or calm majestic statues, or Beethoven symphonies, all bring with them the consciousness that they are mere waves and ripples in an unfathomable ocean of love and beauty; our emotion in its keenest moment passes from expression into silence, our love at its highest flood rushes beyond its object, and loses itself in the sense of divine mystery.”

That’s it exactly: the divine mystery of the universal sacraments, found in “our emotion in its keenest moment”—the birth of a child, the sexual attraction of our best beloved, the power of the arts, music, and nature transform us from mere primates into something else, something that brings us into the realm of the divine.

The War on Women

If you always thought World War III would begin in the Middle East or on the Korean Peninsula, you’d be wrong. It has already started, right here in North America, and it’s a Civil War,  with attackers on one side and victims on the other.  It’s a War on Women, based on the notion some men have, that the female of the species owes them something, that each man is endowed by his Creator with the right to possess a woman who will love him, and him alone, never turning away from him once a bond has formed between them. If she does, if your wife says she wants a divorce, if your girlfriend wants to break up, or if the one you’re pursuing isn’t interested, well, that’s a blow to your manhood that cannot go unpunished.

It’s been going on forever, of course, but lately has taken a turn for the worse. There have been mass shootings at the hands of men who are unable to find women interested in them. There are high school students killing the girls who did nothing more than refuse to go out with them. Men and boys who might never have thought of such a thing have found inspiration in the easy-to-come-by news that other rejectees have taken their revenge with a gun—so why not me too? The theory of Unintended Consequences practically guaranteed this would happen once the Internet was created: so many great ideas out there to be shared—so many dangerous ideas as well, dangerous to the point of mass destruction, and that’s where we are.

Not many people had heard of incels (involuntary celibates) until the Toronto killings in April of this year. Now we know that the Internet is providing an easy way for angry, frustrated men to rant and urge each other on to violence against women. It’s what the Rwandan hatemongers did on the radio before the genocide of the 1990s.  Now we’re facing a kind of gender-cide : “If I can’t have you no one will.”

What can be done about this? We can forbid hate speech and hire regulators to monitor it. No one should be allowed to urge others to kill.   Beyond that, it falls to families, mothers and fathers, to teach their offspring from an early age that Life does not include an entitlement clause.  It’s a sad reality that there are some people who will never find themselves in a relationship with the opposite sex–more than ever, in fact, when you consider the world as a whole.   In China, India, Vietnam, and some other countries the ratio between males and females is way out of balance because of selective abortion of female fetuses.   There are 30 million more males than females in China alone, and competition for a wife is tough.  This is a recipe for disaster.

It also falls to schools to help with a solution.   Every school should be teaching about healthy relationships, the realities of breakups, and how to handle those painful moments. The sexual urge is the driving force of our existence. We want a mate so badly that at certain times in our lives we can’t think of anything else.  Take that urge, the immaturity of young men,  lots of guns, a handy, unregulated social soapbox, and you’ve got something as explosive as nitroglycerin.

 

The Guru and the Evangelist

If you want to get the wheels of your mind a-whirling, try watching Wild, Wild Country and Come Sunday back-to-back on Netflix.   The first is the story of Osha (Baghwan Sri Rajneesh), the guru who wanted to create a paradise on earth in Oregon in the 1980s and the second the story of Carlton Pearson, the Pentecostal preacher from Tulsa who came to the realization that there was no Hell and was booted out of his church as a result of his revealing that….um… secret.

Both these stories are fascinating, and what ties them together are the images of the congregations gathered around their main men by the thousands, listening raptly as they sermonize, philosophize, theologize, and mesmerize. Each of the two flocks is looking for a leader, someone to trust, to tell them what to do, what to believe, and they are convinced they have found them in the person of this hirsute, sanpaku-eyed oracle, and the urbane, telegenic preacherman.   These well-meaning men and women, these votaries of divine love have unburdened themselves of Reason, and filled that spot in their brains with a blind trust in the Master/Minister.   The images of both groups of disciples rapturously chanting, singing, dancing and carrying on in general around their leaders is enough to make a Humanist shake his head in wonder. They are, as the ancient Greeks used to say, ecstatic- ex statis—out of themselves. They’ve arrived at a different place through the power of the group and of their faith in the Beloved Leader. Those same Greeks called it being en-theos (enthusiastic)—having the god within you, and Dionysus never had it as good in ancient Athens as Osho and Bishop Pearson did at the height of their careers.

What is it in Homo sapiens that craves this super-powered mentor-figure? Is it that our self-awareness has revealed the dark places of the universe so clearly that without some strongman to support us, we would drift into a kind of madness? Over and over again we see it: masses of people seeking the answers and finding it in the latest charismatic man-of-words.

But the story of Carlton Pearson shows how far mentor-worship will go: only as far as it doesn’t butt up against a sacred text or two. So when Pearson concludes that a merciful God would never send the victims of Rwandan genocide to hell simply because they had never been “saved” in the Pentecostal sense of the word, he loses his congregation, or a large part of it. The Bible says “Only through Christ” can you avoid the flames of Hell, and that’s the end of it for many people—no asterisks for genocide victims who never heard of Jesus or for little children who can’t talk yet. They too must burn.

Bishop Pearson has opted out of that group.  He’s now editing the Bible and has come up with something called the Gospel of Inclusion.  I’m not sure what that entails, but it’s perhaps what I would call “universalism”—the idea that there is no single path to the Divine, and that divinity can be approached by paying attention to the seven universal sacraments—the peak experiences that are part of being human–no sacred text needed.

Baghwan Sri Rajneesh (Osho) and the Sacrament of the Group

Drop everything and watch Wild, Wild Country on Netflix, the incredible tale of guru Baghwan Sri Rajneesh (Osho), his attempt to create a paradise on earth in Oregon, and how it all went wrong. This should be required viewing at any university’s humanities program.   How could people of good will so bent on creating a world of love and peace end up hated and feared and persecuted by an entire state? It’s a clash of cultures with so many missteps on both sides.

First of all, comes arrogance.   You can’t roll into a place with a chip on your shoulder, claiming you’ve got all the answers, that you’re going to wave your magic wand and presto! all the local yokels will see the light, leave their former ignorant lives and join you in your ecstatic dance around the guru.   It’s not like the Spanish coming to the New World and the natives witnessing the impressive technological marvels this new culture had to offer. No, the Oregonians who lived nearby just saw a bunch of weird people all dressed in red who looked like they were stoned half the time.   It didn’t help when the front-woman for the Rajneeshees was Sheela, who seems to never have spoken about the locals without her lip curling into a sneer.

On the other hand, the county clerk in Oregon seems to have clearly violated election law and gotten away with it scot free.   The law in Oregon said that you only had to be a resident in Oregon for 21 days before an election in order to register to vote.   The Rajneeshees idea to win the election was to bus in street people from all over the country and give them a home in their commune–food and shelter in exchange for work.   They would then be eligible to vote and presumably vote for the representatives that Sheela wanted.   This is a scary strategy—one that any wealthy group could exploit to tip an election, but the law is the law. It was appalling to watch the county clerk with the backing of law enforcement refuse to register the newcomers, calling to mind the denial of voting rights in the South in the 60s.

But the main thing you get out of this 6-part series is just how powerful the Sacrament of the Group is. This need to belong is so strong within us—we want to be part of something, anything that will give our lives meaning.   All these people flocking to gurus in India, and later to be part of a commune in Oregon, agreeing to wear the same color clothing as a badge of honor that now you truly belong to “the master”—wow, to an outsider you look like nothing but automatons who have checked your reason at the door, giving your minds over fully to a con man who has hypnotized you into accepting his will as law.   There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the denizens of the commune as they tell us how happy they were in those days back in the 80s under the guidance of Osho and Sheela, but what it looks like is they were lobotomized by their desire to belong, as so many gang members are today, so many cult members, so many teenagers anxious to conform to the in-crowd at their schools.

There is also a Sacrament of Friends and Mentors. Every human being needs teachers and friends who will guide them and support them as they go through the twists and turns life presents them. It’s not exactly clear what Osho was all about—he certainly had charisma, but in the end was he on some kind of power trip, basking in the adulation his votaries were only too willing to offer?   The moral seems only too clear: never abandon Reason and Humility as you navigate the rough waters of existence.