Thursday, December 28, 2017

What Will It Take?

Many years ago, I had a conversation with a graduate student in Berkeley who was studying a critical issue related to Jews in pre-war Nazi Germany: when does one decide when (and if) the political situation has become dire enough to consider actions like leaving the country? That is, what are the signs one needs to conclude that pulling up all the stakes cementing one in place—one’s job, one’s friends, one’s family, one’s culture, one’s hopes for the future—is not only a logical but a necessary move? And, of course, other options to leaving are also always under consideration: joining an opposition group, joining a conspiracy to target the troublesome leaders or party, or taking whatever action is needed to bring the crisis to a confrontation and, one hopes, a big enough change to end it. In the case of Nazi Germany, what would have been, or should have been, the last straw for a Jew, or, for that matter, for any German? What would have proved, conclusively, that there was no reasoning or moderation or reform measure that could stop the Nazi march toward armaggedon—in this case, a brutal and aggressive military assault on half the world and the mass murder of Jews, both previously unthinkable? What would have made a person conclude that there was now no alternative but the most drastic, perilous, and perhaps lethal action? And it should go without saying that a similar if not identical type of decision must have faced many people in late eighteenth century France just before the murder and chaos unleashed by the French Revolution; or those in Russia just before the 1917 revolution that brought the entire state and nobility down and initiated Soviet Communism and Stalinism.
            The reason for raising this question now must be obvious. We in the United States are faced with a President* in Donald Trump whose actions have caused many of us to conclude that not only do we have an ignorant megalomaniac as head of state, but a party in control of both houses of Congress that seems willing to sacrifice every moral/ ethical principle to allow this moron to rule, willing to flout all the holy norms they have preached for years, and survive. They have sanctioned all of his idiot picks for cabinet office despite the clear intention of most to destroy the very agencies they are chosen to head. They have approved his totally unqualified judicial picks of over one hundred judges that threatens to distort the judicial branch throughout the nation for half a century. And they have justified or tried to justify his most egregious moves to enrich both himself and his family through emoluments specifically forbidden in the document they claim to revere, the U.S. Constitution. For many observers, the weight of all this comprises the greatest threat to American democracy in its relatively short history. And we haven’t even referred to the criminality alleged in the investigation led by special prosecutor Mueller concerning possible collusion with Russians to steal the 2016 presidential election, and the travesty represented by the Tax Bill just passed and signed into law that will, at the least, exacerbate the extreme inequality that has made our era the closest Americans have come to the oligarchic rule of the Gilded Age. In short, the foxes are now fully in charge of the henhouse and seem determined to enrich themselves to bursting even if it means killing every last living thing on the planet.
            The question becomes: is this enough to get alarmed? Is this enough to move you and me and others who see its dire implications to action? And if not, what will it take? What is the step beyond which the American public will not go? How much will have to be stolen or risked or violated by the thieves in power before masses of people will say “enough.”
            I have to confess to you that I have no answers. I have no idea what would induce me, especially at my age, to get out into the streets once again. In this regard, I have to think back to the mid-1960s when I was induced by the obscenity of what our military was doing in Vietnam to join an anti-war group and publicly burn my discharge papers and take part in every demonstration in New York City and even Washington DC I could find, up to and including an arrest protesting the draft in Philadelphia. But at that time, there was simply no question that thousands of the most-informed citizens of this country had come to a similar conclusion. The universities were alive (or about to be) with lectures and demonstrations and teach-ins that were building a national movement against the war. And it was focused towards one clear objective: making it known that thinking Americans were opposed to the war, and wanted it stopped. Though there were parallel ideas involved, including actions opposing capitalism itself, opposing the enduring racism that had marred the nation for centuries, opposing the world-wide clandestine operations of the American empire, the focus of the movement was the brutality and stupidity and essential un-winnability of the Vietnam War.
            Now, at this stage of the Trump era, there is no similar, specific outrage. That is one difference. There are daily outrages, and behavior and language used by the chief of state that would have been unimaginable in any previous administration, but all this is more in the nature of a ‘drip-drip-drip’ than a target to focus on. In the internet age, we have become almost inured to the outrageous language, the ignorance posing as intelligence, the penchant for insult that is our daily diet on social media. The other difference is that the radical Right has caught up with the Left when it comes to social action; has studied what was done in the 1960s and used it to promote its own nefarious aims. And beyond that, the oligarchs—the Koch brothers, the Waltons, the Mercers, the Sheldon Adelsons—have poured billions of support money into think tanks and apparatchiks like Breitbart and the Tea Party and neo-Nazi others to make them more than able to counteract any demonstrations that the Left can mount; with more money flowing into so-called news organizations like Fox News to make sure that vast areas of the country hear about any confrontations from their singularly partisan perspective.
            All this makes it more difficult than ever to muster the outrage necessary, find the issue that can become the focus of that outrage, and the companions willing to risk publicly challenging the reigning authorities—themselves more armed and ready than ever to use whatever force is necessary to quell any and every challenge. And that becomes the challenge itself. What is it that can impel enough citizens to demand, not once, but continuously and vigorously and in a way that is threatening to those in power, that enough is enough. That this must change. This must change now. And if it does not, then those in power will be unable to rest, will be unable to enjoy the fruits of their ill-gotten gains, will be unable to even walk (or more likely ride) down the street without being assaulted by those who are fed up with being outraged? What can drive people to this kind of forfeiture of their comfort; this kind of risk to their well-being; this kind of flaunting of conventional morality in favor of a higher morality? Because that’s what it takes. People have to be willing to violate conventions, break laws and risk jail, take positions that put their careers and families and lives at risk. And in order to do that, the issue or issues against which they take a stand must give them no rest. They cannot simply say, well, this doesn’t affect me directly, this doesn’t affect those I love, this doesn’t have anything to do with me in the short term because yes, this is something I dislike intensely, but I can live with it. I can turn to my family, or my vacation, or my TV, or my smart phone or computer with all their distractions, and continue to live my life with little or no disruption. I can survive this until something over which I have no control changes. NO. The issue must stick in their craw; they must be unable to swallow it, digest it, shit it out. “there is some shit i will not eat,” said E. E. Cummings’ character Olaf in his anti-war poem; and many many people must be able to join Olaf in his objection not to something specific like war, but to the subtle war that is now being waged against government itself, against democracy itself, against life itself. Many many of us must be able to say, as openly as Olaf, not only that there is some shit we will not eat, but more that we will not kiss your economic system, your oligarchic system, your fixed judicial system, your legal system, and yes, your ‘fucking flag’ that is used more as a bludgeon to silence dissent than as a symbol of a once-great democracy.
            So we come back to the initial question. What will it take? And when? Because there can be no doubt that the longer the small daily outrages go on, the longer we give this piece of excrement in the White House the opportunity to appoint judges and issue international threats and make a mockery of science up to and including global warming, the harder it becomes to isolate any one outrage sufficient to galvanize resistance. We have all already become inured. We have all already begun to see a president who is ignorant, who lies multiple times daily, who makes no pretense about favoring his family and white-supremacist friends, who mocks real news by calling it fake news, who engages in silly pissing contests with unstable world leaders risking nuclear holocaust, as something approaching normalcy. That’s just the way it is, we begin to tell ourselves; we can’t do anything about it, we moan; the system is rigged and fixed beyond repair, we complain; and go about our daily business hoping that the price to be paid will not come due till long after we’re gone. Or at least until we summon the courage to agree that the time has come to flee.
            As for me, I have no real helpful advice. At this point I am pretty much like everyone else: pretty sure that things cannot go on for much longer, pretty sure that our world is being ruined by having a moron in the most powerful office in the world, pretty pissed off at the idiots that put him there and the ones keeping him there, but without much more than my anger to offer. Able to admit, finally, that like everyone on the planet at this moment, I’m hoping for a smoking gun (or, I have to admit, some more conventionally lethal kind of gun) to emerge from the Mueller investigation—a scandal outrageous enough that even a few Republicans will cry ‘enough: there is some shit I can no longer publicly eat.’ Or that some young activist (I’m thinking of Mario Savio in Berkeley’s free speech movement) finds the issue and the language and the fire to inspire thousands to join him or her in marching on Washington and every other major city and refusing to stop marching and meeting and getting arrested and clogging the capitalist machine with their bodies until something fundamental is changed. Because really, folks, the situation is truly dire; not so much in the immediate sense that we need, but in the long-term sense that is far more serious—the degradation of our democratic form of government, the degradation of our human relations, the degradation of the land and water and air and climate of the only planet we know of that can support human life. The stakes are truly that high. The only question is: where is the spark, when will that necessary spark fly up and ignite? Because at this point, it appears that only a conflagration will do. Only a conflagration will accomplish the cleansing necessary to save a posterity that up until now we have always been able to expect. And that, I fear, is why we have all remained paralyzed until now: no one likes a fire. We all fear the flames. But like the fires that have been burning in the West, the longer the fire is delayed, the hotter and longer and more catastrophic is its burning when it ignites all that accumulated fuel. All of which means that the last thing we need, now, today, with 2018 about to dawn, is withdrawal from the fray. No, what we need is more people getting more and more outraged and convinced that the powerful never withdraw from the fight to protect and increase and hoard their assets, and that they must, finally, be confronted and outed and humiliated and thoroughly beaten. And it is only the aroused masses, the masses they fear above all else, who can administer that beating.

Lawrence DiStasi


Thursday, December 21, 2017

Jesus to Christology

Here we are in the Christmas season again and, as always, there are the usual calls to “put the Christ back in Christmas.” This seems like a reasonable request—until that is, we begin to look into words and ideas and their histories. For me, this means looking into the history that made a radical Jewish preacher named Jesus of Nazareth into a divine figure called “Christ.” And as we learn from lexicons, the English word “Christ” comes from a Greek word, Khristos, which means “anointed;” and this, in turn, turns Jesus into the Christ, or anointed one, which in Hebrew is masiah (also mashiah and mashiach) or Messiah. In Jewish tradition, the coming of the masiah or anointed one was eagerly anticipated as the event that would unify the twelve tribes into one nation, and revive the Temple in Jerusalem. According to Reza Aslan (Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth), there were many, many figures around the time of Jesus claiming to be messiahs, mainly because Jerusalem and its temple were being profaned by the Roman occupation. The traditional job of all of these messiahs, including Jesus of Nazareth, would have been to defeat or eject the Romans from Jewish land and restore the Temple and Jerusalem to Jewish rule. That was in fact, according to Aslan, the announced purpose of Jesus himself and all Zealots: to kick out the Romans and restore the Temple in Jerusalem to its seat of worship for the one Hebraic God, Jahweh.
            This leads us to the idea of Christ. How did a radical, impoverished and probably-illiterate preacher named Jesus, who called himself the Son of Man, become the Son of God with a Greek name, Khristos? How did a strictly Jewish zealot with a mission to restore Jewish worship in its central temple become the leader of a world religion that preached not to the Jews alone, but moreso to the Romans and other “pagans” of the time who were their mortal enemies?
            Of course, these are questions that neither I—growing up Roman Catholic—nor anyone I knew even thought of, much less asked. Jesus Christ was God, the second person, the Son, part of the one but tripartite God, all of them equally God, and that was that. Always had been God. Always would be God. And it was our job not to question but to worship this mystery. The Bible—at least the Bible we were exposed to—said it and repeated it in ways that left no doubt. And for all we knew, there never had been any doubt. But once again, history informs us that there had been from the beginning quite a bit of doubt about these central tenets of our faith. And the main question related to this business of Jesus, or rather Christ, being the God-man. Simultaneously God and Man. Born of a woman, Mary, and with a father, Joseph, who, it turned out, wasn’t quite a father as we know fathers to be. Nor was Mary a woman in the conventional sense either. She was pregnant, that was for sure. That’s why the story tells us that she and Joseph were desperate to find a place to rest their weary heads for her to give birth, finally settling on this “manger”—a kind of Bethlehem stable which they occupied in the company of farm animals: sheep, goats, cows, donkeys and so on. A very humble place for a man-God. Very humble beginnings, indeed. Which is what we celebrate, supposedly, on Christmas Day: the birth of God taking on humble human flesh in the manger.
            So, what we learned was not only that this baby was divine, but that he was born in the normal way, from the womb of Mary. BUT (and this was a big ‘but’) not with the help of poor old Joseph (whose role, in the folk tradition in Italy, is humorously referred to as cornuto, a cuckold). No, poor old Joe the carpenter had no role in this begetting; rather, it was God, or the third person of God, the Holy Spirit, who surreptitiously impregnated Mary without anything so animalistic as copulation to sully the man-God’s begetting (we were never told if Mary felt the impregnation, but we were quite sure she never enjoyed it).
            Now this story, the one we celebrate at Christmas (even though most early scholars calculated that Jesus was born in March; which didn’t dissuade the Roman Church from making his official birth conform to several pagan holidays that fell on December 25, in accordance with St. Paul’s very influential notion of winning over those Romans Jesus actually hated by blending their rituals with what became his proselytizing Christian Church), begins to take on the familiar lines. Somewhere between the death of Jesus of Nazareth (and Reza Aslan, again, points out that crucifixion was reserved by the Romans for only the most dangerous rebels against their rule) and the now-familiar celebration of Christmas, something big happened to change the story. And the figure who is mainly credited with the major changing of that story is St. Paul (known in his lifetime as Saul of Tarsus).
            Saul of Tarsus was a highly religious Jew living in what is now Syria, who started out as a zealous persecutor of the early Christians. But he suffered a miracle on the road to Damascus and, realizing the error of his ways, transformed himself into the chief writer and progenitor of Christianity. It was Saul, not Jesus, who invented most of the big ideas of Christianity, what scholars now refer to as Christology. Saul/Paul wrote a lot of letters, and in these epistles (I always tuned out when the priest read the dull epistles of Paul) he really gave shape to the entire edifice that became the Christian Church (and that includes the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Roman Church, and the Protestant ones that broke away starting with Martin Luther). His basic idea was that the Christ had existed before he took the human form of Jesus, and that He was not some itinerant no-account radical preacher but the Lord or Kyrios. And the reason he was Lord and superior to all other pretend earthly Lords was that he was literally the Son of God. Remember, Jesus of Nazareth always referred to himself as the Son of Man. Not Saul/Paul. His Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, the true Lord of all Creation; or rather, the One who had introduced a whole new dispensation, a new creation, in which he redeemed humans from the sin of Adam which had separated them from God their Creator, and, simply by confessing their allegiance to Him, united all professing humans in the new, liberated creation. More specifically, Christ’s death on the cross had accomplished this. It was not a defeat at the hands of the Romans, not a humiliating punishment by crucifixion as it seemed, but rather a victory over the world and its rulers. And by uniting with this cross-nailed cosmic Christ, Christians also were united in their redemption and victory not over the Romans, but over Death.
            Again, this is all Saul’s theology. It has little to do with what Jesus of Nazareth apparently preached. It has more to do with persuading Romans and other goyim to join this new church (as does Paul’s decree that neither circumcision nor adhering to Jewish dietary laws were necessary to become Christian, causing Peter himself to refuse to share a meal with Paul’s new Christians). And the interesting thing is that there were several sects in the early church who simply did not agree with Saul/Paul’s theology. Among these, the most prominent (they were called “heresies” by the reigning Christian Church) were those following Arianism (Arians did not believe in the equality of the three persons in God, but rather believed that God the Father was supreme and primary, and had begotten Jesus Christ as his only Son); and adherents of Ebionism (which maintained that Jesus was an ordinary man born of a woman, a mortal). In a similar but opposite vein, Gnosticism’s disagreement with the man-God idea was the Gnostic insistence that the physical body of Christ was a mere appearance that disguised his real nature, which was spiritual. All of these diverse views are understandable, given the Pauline doctrine that maintained what, to most mortals, was the irrationality of a God who was simultaneously a man born of a woman who was a virgin. The Church’s resolution of these conflicts may be even harder to understand: in 451, something called the “hypostatic union” was advanced as dogma: the proposition that “Christ has one human nature [physis] and one divine nature [physis], united with neither confusion nor division,” which is a sort of ex-cathedra pronouncement that explains nothing. Finally, according to Reza Aslan, the idea that Christ was a divine being, a God-man united with Jahweh, would’ve been anathema to any orthodox Jew, as it was to several of the original disciples who had actually lived with Jesus (unlike Paul who had never met him).
            What we are left with, then, is a Christianity that seems to have departed radically from the message, and the intentions behind it, that Jesus himself preached when he was alive. No less a genius than Leo Tolstoy seems to have come to a similar conclusion in his radical analysis of Russian Orthodox Christianity.  And what Tolstoy tried to do was promote a more or less originalist Christianity that centered on the Sermon on the Mount:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right 
cheek, turn to him the other also. 

This nonviolent and rational ideal was what Christianity should have focused on, according to Tolstoy, and he wrote stirringly about its importance when compared to the rituals and miracles and mysteries that have come down through Paul and the rest of the orthodox Christian Churches, and which he dismissed as deceptive frosting for the masses.
            It may well be that Tolstoy was right in his analysis—or rather, closer to what Jesus of Nazareth actually preached and ultimately intended. Even as a Zealot, that is, Jesus may have realized that the Jews simply could not match the power of Imperial Rome in a conventional battle designed to eject them from Jerusalem, and so would have to invent a kind of spiritual/moral jiu-jitsu to do the job (the Sermon on the Mount, which if really followed, if humans related to one another with love and forgiveness rather than violence, would lead to the irrelevance of government and churches, too). As it turned out, however, it was Saul of Tarsus who invented the distortions cum adornments of Jesus’ message that would eventually appeal to Romans and turn Imperial Rome into the center of Christianity. Not, to be sure, as Jesus might have intended it, but with the divine trappings designed to appeal to Paul’s Roman converts. All of which may be something to keep in mind as we sing our Hosannas, light our lights, and eat our puddings in this dark but celebratory season of the year.

Lawrence DiStasi